TAMPA — From nearly the day longshoreman Hercules Gilmore Jr. died in its cargo hold, the Panamanian-flagged Honesty Ocean has proven more phantom than ship.
On Oct. 23, 2012, Gilmore stood on the deck of the 609-foot-long vessel docked at Port Tampa Bay when rigging lifting 2 tons of piping above his head suddenly gave way. Gilmore, 56, moving to avoid being crushed, fell 15 feet into the ship's hold as the cargo crashed atop him. He died at the scene.
It wasn't long before the Honesty Ocean left Tampa waters never to return.
Attorneys for Gilmore's widow said that may not be a coincidence. The ship has remained away from U.S. waters as they have worked, fruitlessly so far, to get the owners of the vessel to respond to a negligence lawsuit filed in federal court last year. Last month, the widow filed suit in Hillsborough Circuit Court.
The attorney for Gilmore's widow, Jo Ann Gilmore, 61, of St. Petersburg, said parts of a sling used to carry the pipes were badly frayed and should not have been used to carry the heavy load.
Gilmore, whose husband also was the pastor of Divine Worship House of God in St. Petersburg, could not be reached Wednesday.
Tampa lawyer David Pope said he thinks the owners of the ship — he believes they are based in China — might be trying to evade legal liability. And on the high sea, identity can seem hopelessly anonymous — even in an age of sophisticated computer networks — with international waters being a haven for outlaw mariners.
"We're trying to root through the underbrush to find out who these people are," said Pope. "These foreign-flagged vessels come into port and the next thing you know they're on the other side of the world. They don't call these ships trans-steamers for nothing."
Most foreign vessels, maritime law experts say, know they face the potential seizure of a ship should they ignore litigation and return to U.S. waters. Not wanting to lose access to lucrative American markets, they usually carry insurance and respond to legal papers.
"Generally, these people are covering their butts," said Tampa maritime law attorney John McLaughlin, who is not affiliated with the litigation.
Just tracking the Honesty Ocean's ownership is a lesson in how legal authority on the high seas is often illusory and the rule of law often as meaningless as in the age of Magellan.
In an investigation earlier this year, the New York Times noted that the 100,000 large merchant ships sailing the oceans carry 90 percent of the world's goods with little oversight.
"Today's maritime laws," the newspaper reported, "have hardly more teeth than they did centuries ago when history's great empires first explored the ocean's farthest reaches."
Pope said he has been frustrated by what he thinks might be deliberate efforts to avoid responsibility in Gilmore's death.
Just months after the accident, the ship supposedly changed ownership. Honesty Ocean became Uniorder. The Panamanian flag the vessel flew both before and after the ownership switch is meaningless, Pope said. It's a flag of convenience.
The ship's owners, the Honesty Ocean Shipping Co., and its operator, Keymax International Ship Management Co., are both in China.
Pope said he had both served with legal papers by international courier. Pope received proof of delivery. But the federal suit went unanswered.
Pope filed suit in state court to see if, once again, he might get an answer from the Chinese owners. He said he will have the suit translated into Chinese and served once again.
The attorney won a default in the federal suit last month. But he has not yet sought a judgment. He declined to identify the damages he will seek.
"I'm going to as many lengths as I can to be sure, when we do get a judgment, the owners aren't going to say, 'I didn't know' or 'Nobody told me I'd been sued.' "
Once he gets a judgment, Pope said, he could ask the Chinese to enforce it. But he and experts in maritime law agree it would be difficult to collect, especially if the ship avoids U.S. waters.
"Basically, you have a piece of paper that isn't worth anything," said Matt Shaffer, a Houston lawyer specializing in maritime law.
Normally, cargo ships are parts of what are called "protection and indemnity clubs." So if a suit is filed, the vessel's owners contact the club, which arranges for a local attorney to represent their interests.
But Pope said he can find no evidence the Honesty Ocean was a member of any club, nor that it carried insurance. He said the ship may have been the only one operated by its owners.
If Pope learned that any of the company's ships returned to a U.S. port, he could file papers to have U.S. marshals seize the vessel until owners posted a bond. But Pope cannot seize it unless he can prove the Uniorder's new owners are really the same as Honesty Ocean's.
One suspicious oddity is that Keymax, the management company, still operated the ship after the supposed ownership change, Pope said.
In any case, he said, the ship has since sailed mostly in the waters of the Far East.
"They're slippery dudes," Pope said.
Times researcher John Martin contributed to this report. Contact William R. Levesque at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow @Times_Levesque.