Wepfer Marine reaches settlement on towboat sinking: report

Boat company Wepfer Marine is reported to have reached a settlement with the surviving family members of two men who died in the December 2017 capsizing and sinking of the towboat Ricky Robinson in the Mississippi River near Memphis in 2017.

Financial terms of the settlement were not disclosed.

The Ricky Robinson sunk on December 8th 2017. The boat was later found in deep water near President’s Island and was raised to the surface.

The body of 19-year-old deckhand Anquavious Jamison was found inside the boat. He was wearing a life jacket and entangled in a thick rope. His stepfather, the boat’s pilot, Keith Pigram, 35, was presumed dead, though his body was never found.

Surviving family members filed legal claims against Wepfer Marine, which owned the 1976-built vessel.

An investigation by the National Transportation Safety Board concluded that, while the captain was partially responsible for the sinking, the company had exercised “inadequate oversight” in preventing the boat’s below-deck compartments from flooding.

Jeff Bloomfield, a Memphis-based specialist in maritime law, represented the captain’s estate. He said he couldn’t talk about the confidential settlement but confirmed that the settlement beneficiaries included the captain’s five children as well the deckhand’s mother.

On the morning of the sinking, the Ricky Robinson was traveling against the current, without a barge, when it made a sharp turn to its right. Investigators later concluded the captain was trying to beach the boat to keep it from sinking. The pilot of a nearby towboat, the Betsy Ross, heard a radio distress call saying, “We’re going down.”

The pilot of the other boat sped toward the Ricky Robinson, and briefly looked down to make sure his own boat wasn’t taking water over its front. “However, when he looked up about 20 to 30 seconds later, according to his estimate, he no longer saw the Ricky Robinson,” the report says.

The Ricky Robinson sinking drew national attention within the river navigation world. The fatal accident also led to complex federal lawsuits.

Two women filed claims on behalf of a total of five children that they’d had with Pigram, the boat captain. A third woman, the mother of the deckhand and Pigram’s domestic partner, also filed a claim.

Wepfer Marine filed a court document that said the company should be shielded from liability because there was no evidence that the boat was defective. 

In December 2018 the NTSB report on the sinking concluded that the cause was water flowing through open hatches into spaces below the deck.

The investigators interviewed another captain and deckhand who had used the boat on the day of the sinking, and they reported that the deckhand routinely had to pump water out of the below-deck space in the rear of the boat. Company representatives said they were unaware of the problem.

Because of the ongoing problem with water getting into the below-deck areas, the crew had to keep the watertight covers open to access those areas and pump them out, the investigators wrote. That left the boat vulnerable to taking on more water while it was traveling, the investigators concluded.

A summary of the accident split blame between the captain and the company:

Property damage $1.5m estimate.

Environmental damage: Approximately 200 gallons of fuel oil released into water.