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Family of killed Bounty deckhand sues shipowners

By Thom Patterson, CNN
updated 12:31 PM EDT, Sun May 12, 2013
Claudene Christian tweeted this image of her with the Bounty on June 23 of last year.
Claudene Christian tweeted this image of her with the Bounty on June 23 of last year.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Deckhand Claudene Christian, 42, died when HMS Bounty sank in Hurricane Sandy
  • Family sues ship's owners for $90 million, alleging negligence and reckless conduct
  • U.S. Coast Guard and federal transportation officials are investigating the shipwreck
  • Body of Bounty's longtime captain, Robin Walbridge, was never recovered

(CNN) -- The fight to point blame in the deadly last voyage of the HMS Bounty is headed for federal court.

Family members of deckhand Claudene Christian, one of two Bounty crew members who died in the sinking, filed a $90 million civil lawsuit this week against the owners of the three-masted square-rigger, which appeared in several Hollywood films, including the "Pirates of the Caribbean" franchise.

The suit alleges the Bounty was unseaworthy and its captain -- Robin Walbridge -- was negligent when he set sail with his crew of 15 as Hurricane Sandy steamed toward the U.S. Eastern Seaboard.

Walbridge was also lost in the shipwreck. His body was never recovered after the vessel took on water in stormy seas and sank on October 29. Wind gusts above 100 mph and waves as high as 30 feet flipped Bounty on its side, tossing Walbridge and his 15 shipmates into the Atlantic off the coast of North Carolina. Fourteen crew survived.

Raw video: Rescue from HMS Bounty

The lawsuit accuses the Bounty's owners of "intentionally placing the lives of the crew at extreme risk for the sole purpose of financial gain." It also provides detailed examples of allegedly poor maintenance and inadequate crew training, which it says contributed to the sinking and Christian's death.

"As much as I would like to speak my mind, I can not make any comments as of yet," wrote Bounty owner Robert Hansen in an e-mail to CNN.

Arguably the best-known traditionally rigged wooden 18th-century replica ship in the world, the Bounty belonged to the New York-based HMS Bounty Organization, which sailed it from port to port as a tourist attraction.

Christian, a 42-year-old former teen beauty queen, had been hired as a Bounty deckhand just five months before. It was her first job aboard a ship.

The Bounty was a replica of the 18th-century British vessel that was rocked by an infamous mutiny. Christian, drawn by the romance and adventure surrounding wooden sailing ships, claimed to be a descendent of Bounty mutineer Fletcher Christian.

During her college days, she cheered for the University of Southern California as one of its Song Girls. Christian also launched a doll-making company. At one point, she co-owned a bar in Los Angeles.

The idea of crewing on a tall ship dawned on her after she visited a replica of Christopher Columbus' famous wooden vessel La Nina. Her shipmates aboard the Bounty grew to like her always upbeat personality.

Read more about Christian and the final voyage of the Bounty

The lawsuit comes three months after U.S. Coast Guard and National Transportation Safety Board launched hearings aimed at learning what contributed to the sinking.

Capt. Robin Walbridge, who died in last year\'s shipwreck, commanded the Bounty for 17 years.
Capt. Robin Walbridge, who died in last year's shipwreck, commanded the Bounty for 17 years.

Crew members testified that Walbridge knowingly set sail toward Hurricane Sandy from New London, Connecticut, en route to St. Petersburg, Florida. He's featured in a YouTube video where Walbridge explains how to "get a good ride" out of a hurricane, by sailing "as close to the eye of it as you can."

"We chase hurricanes," Walbridge said in the video.

Multiple witnesses also testified that the captain chose to sail knowing there was rot infesting the key parts of the Bounty, including the ships wooden ribs -- known as the frames.

Hansen, representing the Bounty's owners, declined to testify at the hearing, pleading their Fifth Amendment right to avoid self-incrimination.

The storm that broke records -- and hearts

The lawsuit alleges the owners and Walbridge committed "negligence" and acts of "reckless conduct" by "ignoring unmistakable evidence of rot and deterioration" and the "clear adverse consequences of concealment rather than proper corrective repairs."

Two days after leaving Connecticut, heavy seas from the approaching storm increased seawater leaking into the ship. The rising water began to overwhelm Bounty's pumps. Later, the ship's generators and engines failed, leaving the Bounty at the mercy of Sandy's fury.

Built in 1960 as the featured prop in the Marlon Brando film "Mutiny on the Bounty," the 108-foot vessel had been overhauled in 2001 and again in 2006.

The vessel wasn't licensed to carry passengers out to sea, which allowed operators to avoid requirements reserved for higher classified ships -- including a sometimes expensive, time-consuming Coast Guard hull inspection every two years. The ship's classification also allowed it to hire less experienced crew to serve in officer positions.

The Coast Guard and the National Transportation Safety Board are expected to issue final reports on their investigation as soon as the end of the year.

Widow tells of Bounty's last moments

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