published Tuesday, June 28th, 2011

Chattanooga: Barge lawsuit in court this week

  • photo
    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.

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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 or 423-757-6347.

about Todd South...

Todd South covers courts, poverty, technology, military and veterans for the Times Free Press. He has worked at the paper since 2008 and previously covered crime and safety in Southeast Tennessee and North Georgia. Todd’s hometown is Dodge City, Kan. He served five years in the U.S. Marine Corps and deployed to Iraq before returning to school for his journalism degree from the University of Georgia. Todd previously worked at the Anniston (Ala.) Star. Contact ...

Comments do not represent the opinions of the Chattanooga Times Free Press, nor does it review every comment. Profanities, slurs and libelous remarks are prohibited. For more information you can view our Terms & Conditions and/or Ethics policy.
dave said...

Once again Serodino will get off...wait and see, and they will kill again.

June 28, 2011 at 12:19 a.m.
BigRidgePatriot said...

You know, I've seen people do some pretty stupid things on the waterways. Anyone that would be in the channel at night and not be prepared to get out of the way of a barge is pretty darn stupid.

Do we know if the smaller craft was burning adequate lights when it was hit? Probably not. If that is the case, the accident would be 100% the smaller craft's fault in international waters. When we get on inland waterways the commercial boats are supposed to accommodate all levels of poor seamanship, I guess.

June 28, 2011 at 10:06 p.m.
nickfortuna said...

I have a strong feeling that both parties were at fault in the accident, but neither wants to admit it. It would take an attorney as experienced as Nicholas Fortuna to fight the case and tip it in the client’s favor.

Nicholas -

April 10, 2012 at 12:34 a.m.
grantjacobus said...

BigRidgePatroit I think you might be miss informed as the fishing boat was disabled and unable to get out of the way. They men were trying to cross the river at the time. One of the men that was killed was my older brother. As far as being stupid I think that would be subjective just like stupid rednecks making stupid statements.

August 7, 2012 at 10:35 p.m.
Shay86 said...

7imothy Spidle was my father and was a wounderful man i would give anything to have my dad back i dont care about the money it wont bring him back i miss him so much his death has torn are family apart he held us together and now hes gone ill never here his voice again or see hes face because a man was on the phone and not doing his job he also left without some of his crew yes i did my home work and i still am because i know my dad would would do the same for me i miss getting that call everyday hey babygirl what are you doing hows my grand babies its so hard on the family he is and always will be truly loved and missed R.I.P DADDY I LOVE YOU YOUR BABYGIRL SHANNON

January 21, 2013 at 4:37 a.m.
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