'Whistleblower' sues barge company

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A former employee of a Chattanooga-based barge company claims he was fired for refusing to perform and remain silent about illegal activities that compromised the safety of the general public, a lawsuit states.

Chattanooga attorney Doug S. Hamill on Tuesday called his client, licensed boat pilot Kelly O'Connor, the "classic whistleblower" who lost his job for shining a light on Serodino Inc.'s practices and eventually reporting the company to the U.S. Coast Guard.

Had Serodino taken Mr. O'Connor's complaints seriously, Mr. Hamill said, two fatal collisions between the company's barges and small fishing boats on Tennessee waterways would not have happened.

Three men died, two of them locally on June 19 when a set of nine Serodino barges being pushed by a tugboat crashed into their fishing boat on the Tennessee River.

A third man died barely a year earlier in June 2009 when barges being pushed by the same tugboat plowed into a fishing boat on Watts Bar Lake in Loundon County.

"The accidents, unfortunately, are proof" of Mr. O'Connor's allegations and that Serodino wasn't following the law, Mr. Hamill said.

A person who answered the phone at Serodino on Tuesday said the company does not talk about pending litigation.

Serodino has not yet responded to Mr. O'Connor's lawsuit, filed June 30 in U.S. District Court in Chattanooga.

As a former employee, Mr. O'Connor is suing Serodino under the federal whistleblower's act. He is asking for back pay and compensation for "humiliation and embarrassment," as well as for punitive damages. He does not list specific dollar amounts in the lawsuit.

Mr. O'Connor states that all his complaints, including repeated notices to his bosses that Serodino was violating federal law by forcing crew members to work more than 12 hours during their shifts, fell on the deaf ears of superiors, who made it clear his opinions were unwelcome.

"Plaintiff was instructed by Defendant to be quiet about the 12-hour violations and to continue working in excess of 12 hours if he wished to keep his job," the lawsuit states.

Mr. O'Connor's other complaints, which began in early 2008, included his belief that Serodino had a habit of insufficiently manning its vessels and that the company failed on "numerous occasions" to maintain a proper lookout for small boats in the vessels' paths.

In the June 2009 collision, the captain of the tugboat was cited by the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency for failure to keep a proper lookout.

Mr. O'Connor further notified his bosses that they were failing to perform regular drug tests on employees despite the well-known practice of crew members drinking and smoking marijuana while aboard working vessels.

Serodino also failed to provide mandatory security and safety training drills, all in violation of federal law, the lawsuit states.

The complaints led to retaliation, first in the form of constant "nit-picking" of Mr. O'Connor's performance, the lawsuit states. Then came systematic admonitions in writing while other employees, who "ran barges aground while asleep," snapped propellers off on rocks, ran out of fuel and collided with recreational boaters, never were questioned, the lawsuit says.

The fatal collisions with two boats in the past 12 months have put Serodino in similar legal trouble.

While families of the two men who died June 19 have not yet taken legal action, the widow of the man who died on Watts Bar Lake is making allegations similar to Mr. O'Connor's.

In a federal lawsuit, the widow is suing for $5 million, claiming the tugboat pushing the barges that crashed into her husband's boat was "manned by an incompetent and poorly trained crew."

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