Trial delayed in Ala suit over 2009 piracy case

AP News
Posted: Dec 02, 2013 2:24 PM

BIRMINGHAM, Ala. (AP) — An Alabama judge delayed the trial set for Monday in a lawsuit crew members filed against two shipping companies after pirates seized a U.S. cargo ship off the coast of Somalia in 2009, an attack portrayed in the recent movie "Captain Phillips."

Mobile County Circuit Judge Michael A. Youngpeter postponed the case because attorneys for crew members of the Maersk Alabama are entering mediation talks this month with lawyers for the shipping companies, a court official said.

The move means the lawsuit could end without a full-blown presentation before jurors if mediation succeeds, but a trial also remains possible next summer, said an aide to the judge.

Crew members are suing Maersk Line Ltd. and the Mobile-based Waterman Steamship Corp. over the attack that was dramatized in the recent Hollywood drama starring Tom Hanks. The five-day standoff ended when Navy SEALs shot and killed three of the pirates who were holding Capt. Richard Phillips in a lifeboat.

The crew members are not suing Phillips, but the captain gave sworn testimony last year about what happened, records show.

While the movie portrayed Phillips as a hero, the lawsuit contends the Alabama was sailing too close to the Somalian coast when pirates boarded and took it over on April 8, 2009. Maritime warnings told ships to remain at least 600 miles off the Somalian coast because of piracy threats, yet the Alabama was just 250 miles from the coast when it was attacked, the suit claims.

Nine crew members in the lawsuit filed last year say they suffered physical and emotional injuries after Somali pirates boarded. Some crew members were held at gunpoint with Phillips, and others hid in an engine room.

Maersk has denied the claims about the ship's proximity to the coast, and it argues that the Somali pirates were criminals and are responsible for any harm to the crew members.

Court documents show Waterman had chartered the ship from Maersk, and the company has adopted many of the argument made in court documents by Maersk.

The lawsuit doesn't seek a specific amount of money, but a similar case filed in Virginia over the attack sought $50 million. Records show the Virginia case was put on hold, and a Texas lawsuit is being shelved at the agreement of both sides to allow the Alabama case to take precedence.

At least five corporate executives or crew members still must give sworn testimony, plus one of the Somali pirates who was captured.