Alleging drunkenness, tug owner sues captain, mate after grounding

A tugboat company is suing its own captain and first mate for negligence, alleging that the captain knew the crewman was drunk when a company barge broke from its tow off the Hawaiian island of Kauai. 

Both vessels, owned by Honolulu-based Young Bros., struck a breakwater and were damaged. The incident occurred Halloween night of last year. 

According to the company’s lawsuit, filed Jan. 7 in U.S. District Court in Honolulu, the tug Moana Holo and barge Maka’ala were departing Nawiliwili Harbor at about 2000 hours when the incident occurred. Winds were east-northeast at 20 to 25 knots, with seas 2 to 4 feet and “growing larger” as the vessels left the harbor.

The lawsuit states that the first mate was paying out tow wire from the aft winch when he failed to stop the drum, releasing all of the wire and disconnecting the barge from the tugboat. The cook was ordered aboard Maka’ala to assist in the recovery, “but all lines tossed … parted before a second line could be secured.” The vessels struck the breakwater at about 2100. 

Moana Holo suffered a hull breach and damage to both Nautican nozzles but remained operational. Maka’ala sustained extensive hull damage in the stern, as well as damage to its starboard side and bow rake. The barge lost its port skeg, prompting the U.S. Coast Guard to close the port at Nawiliwili because of the potential threat to navigation. The assist tug Mikiona was dispatched and helped Moana Holo regain control of the barge.

The suit alleges that after the grounding, the captain failed to comply with a direct order from Young Bros. to administer drug and alcohol tests to the six-man crew. It alleges that the captain breached his duty by ordering the vessels to sail, knowing that the first mate was under the influence of alcohol and not competent. 

Both men were fired. “Defendants willfully and intentionally disregarded federal and state law and company policy with respect to the operations of plaintiff’s vessels and failed to act reasonably to prevent the grounding of and damage to plaintiff’s vessels and, thus, were grossly negligent,” Young Bros. stated in the complaint. The company is seeking damages in an amount “to be proven at trial.”

The suit also alleges that other crewmembers had consumed alcohol “and were unable to carry out their duties.” According to the Inlandboatmen’s Union of the Pacific (IBU), the four crewmen not named in the suit are still employed by Young Bros. but have not been assigned any work for pay since the incident. 

While the company claims that the captain refused to administer drug and alcohol tests after the grounding, the IBU says Young Bros. is at fault because proper testing kits were not available and had to be flown in from Oahu. The four crewmembers in question were tested 11 hours after the incident and the results were negative, the IBU says.

“These people are victims of false accusations that they were intoxicated at the time the vessels sailed,” said attorney Charles Khim, who was representing the union at a Jan. 9 news conference. “It is the company who violated federal law by being unable to immediately give the drug test.”

Donovan Duncan, director of the IBU’s Hawaii region, said the four men are being unfairly punished on the basis of innuendo. 

“They didn’t test them until later and that was the company’s error,” Duncan told Professional Mariner. “These guys would have had the chance to vindicate themselves immediately had they had the tests there.”

Duncan declined to discuss that aspect of the case further because it is going to binding arbitration. In a statement released Jan. 8, Young Bros. said it was not able to comment on the lawsuit but was “grateful that no employees were injured, no customer cargo was lost or damaged, and no fuel or oil leaked from our vessels.”

The incident is under investigation by the U.S. Coast Guard. A hearing date for the lawsuit has not been set.

By Professional Mariner Staff