Sunken cargo ship El Faro had prior propulsion issue -lawsuit

ORLANDO, Oct 29 (Reuters) - The U.S. cargo ship El Faro which experienced engine failure and sank in a hurricane in the Bahamas earlier this month had previously lost power in open sea, according to a new lawsuit in Florida claiming the ship was unseaworthy and the owners negligent.

The lawsuit, filed in Fort Lauderdale late Wednesday on behalf of the wife and five children of seaman Anthony Shawn Thomas, is at least the fourth filed seeking compensation for some of the 33 crew members lost at sea.

The ship’s owner, New Jersey-based Tote Inc, has blamed an unexplained loss of propulsion as the likely cause of the ship going down on about Oct. 1 in high seas whipped up by Hurricane Joaquin.

The ship was undergoing engine room work during the voyage which the company has said was unrelated to the propulsion system.

A U.S. Navy salvage vessel is currently searching the El Faro’s last known location to find the wreckage and the voyage data recorder, similar to an airplane’s black box.

The new complaint cites a U.S. Coast Guard incident report from 2011 when the El Faro lost power and propulsion in open water after a generator breaker tripped.

In that case, engineers found and repaired an electrical wire that had severed, and power was restored, according to the report.

The complaint also cites 23 deficiencies with the El Faro recorded since 2003 by the U.S. Coast Guard, all of which the reports show were resolved. The deficiencies included such problems as a frozen valve, rags and debris in an engine room and a 74-day overdue drydock examination.

“We believe the defendants knew the El Faro was an aged and ailing vessel with structural problems and with a history of taking on water,” said lead attorney Kurt Arnold of Arnold & Itkin of Houston, which also represented victims of the BP Deepwater Horizon oil drilling disaster, in a prepared statement.

“The defendants knew, allowed, and encouraged the El Faro to leave port knowing the potential dangers that lay ahead of the hurricane,” he added.

A spokesman for Tote and related affiliates, said the company had no comment on the lawsuit.

“Our focus remains on support and care for the families and their loved ones,” spokesman Michael Hanson said in an emailed statement. (Editing by David Adams and Andrew Hay)