Chattanooga: Barge lawsuit in court this week

Chattanooga: Barge lawsuit in court this week

June 28th, 2011 by Todd South in News

Staff Photo by John Rawlston/Chattanooga Times Free Press The towboat Bearcat pushes a group of barges to the lock at the Chickamauga Dam on Wednesday.

Attorneys meet Wednesday with a federal judge on a year-old case in which a barge and a fishing boat collided, killing two of the three fishermen aboard.

Family members of the two deceased fishermen - Richard Wilkey and Timothy Spidle - and the sole survivor from that craft, David Wilkey, are suing the barge company for more than $15 million, according to court documents.

Chattanooga-based Serodino Inc. owns and operates the barges and Bearcat tugboat that was pushing them at the time of the accident. The company has said it isn't responsible for the collision.

U.S. District Judge Harry "Sandy" Mattice is scheduled to meet with each side's attorneys to schedule how the lawsuit will move forward.

Wilkey is asking for $75,000 in compensatory damages and $5 million in punitive damages. The family of Spidle, 45, of Elizabethton, Tenn., seeks $2.5 million in compensatory damages and $5 million in punitive damages. The family of Richard Wilkey, 52, of Soddy-Daisy, seeks $2.5 million in compensatory damages and unspecified punitive damages.

Serodino filed documents in December seeking to limit its liability to $1 million in the case. In the documents, Serodino said the deaths were "not caused or contributed to by any fault or neglect" of the company.

Attorneys for the fishermen and their families - Jerry Summers, Jeff Rufolo and Andy Berke - sued Serodino after it filed the liability motion.

On June 19, 2010, the tugboat was pushing a barge formation three barges wide and three deep, according to Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency investigators. Each barge is 35 feet wide and 200 feet long. All barges being pushed totaled a length of about 647 feet and were moving at 5 mph.

The preliminary report said the fishermen were in a navigation channel, not a fishing channel, and Wilkey told investigators the men didn't notice the barge rig until it was 300 feet away.

Toxicology reports released in February showed that all three fishermen had alcohol, marijuana or both in their systems at the time of the collision.

Wilkey later told the Chattanooga Times Free Press that he "might have smoked a joint the night before" but had not consumed the drug that day, and he insisted he was not impaired.

Not posting a lookout is one reason attorneys for the fishermen say Serodino is at fault.

Warren Luetke, 39, who piloted the tugboat during the collision, was indicted in February on two counts of criminally negligent homicide, reckless operation of a boat and failure to render assistance. He is scheduled to appear before Hamilton County Criminal Court Judge Barry Steelman on July 18.

The same tugboat was involved in a similar fatal collision with a fishing boat on Watts Bar Lake in Loudon County on June 26, 2009. Jones Bower Bare, 53, was killed in that accident.

After the latest accident, former Serodino employee and Whitfield County, Ga., resident Kelly O'Connor sued the company in June 2010 for firing him in "retaliation" for his complaints about neglected safety procedure changes on Serodino boats, specifically posting a lookout on the tugboats to watch for other watercraft.

Serodino filed documents that the case had been settled in early May and asked that the judge dismiss O'Connor's lawsuit. Details of the settlement, which have not been released, still must be approved by the court.

Contact staff writer Todd South at tsouth@timesfree press.com or 423-757-6347.