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Barge company ordered to pay $4.3M to crewman forced to work in Hurricane Katrina


EAST ST. LOUIS, Ill.—A federal district court judge has told a barge company that ordered its crew to stay on board its Mississippi River towboat during the height of Hurricane Katrina to pay $4.3 million to a crew member.

Judge David Herndon in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Illinois in East St. Louis, Ill., agreed with the plaintiff in Tyree R. Webb vs. TECO Barge Line Inc. that Mr. Webb had suffered possibly permanent post-traumatic stress syndrome as a result of his three-day ordeal.

According to Judge Herndon's 73-page decision—issued March 7 after a September 2011 bench trial—as Katrina approached on August, 29, 2005, Mr. Webb was on board the tugboat M/V Anita M, a 170-foot-long inland river towboat, on the Mississippi River near Davant, La. He and other towboat crew members were ordered to stay for the hurricane's duration by an executive of Metropolis, Ill.-based TECO, since renamed U.S. United Barge Line L.L.C.

During eight hours of battering by the storm, the M/V Anita M suffered significant damage and required emergency pumps to be set up in order to avoid sinking.

The M/V Anita M and another towboat “broke loose from their moorings and were driven by the hurricane onto the land on the opposite bank of the river, approximately one-quarter of a mile upriver and approximately one-half mile west from where they had originally been moored,” according to the decision. After running aground, both vessels “were battered by numerous barges and other objects during the remainder of the storm.”

The towboats “were unseaworthy in that they were not reasonably fit to withstand the hurricane to which defendant chose to expose them,” said the ruling. “The court finds that the hurricane posed a very real threat to the lives of the crew members, including plaintiff.”

Mr. Webb, who has divorced since the incident and has not returned to work, is constantly fatigued, has difficulty concentrating, is reclusive, has been suicidal and takes five psychiatric drugs, according to the decision.

The court found a doctor's conclusion that Mr. Webb's post-traumatic stress disorder “is permanent and disabling to be persuasive and supported by the vast majority of the evidence,” said the ruling.

The decision notes that according to the American Psychiatric Assn.'s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, “human design” is “one of the stressors that makes post-traumatic stress disorder longer lasting.”

“Although Webb was exposed to a natural disaster, this was because his boss required it. The case therefore presents the human tormentor element present in rape and torture cases as well as the natural disaster feature,” said the judge in awarding Mr. Webb the $4.3 million, which he said is a “direct result of Hurricane Katrina and defendant's negligence.”

U.S. United Barge Line's attorney could not be reached for comment.