The legal maneuvering in last month's boat fire has begun: Tropical Breeze Casino Cruz, which owns the boat that caught fire and forced 50 people to abandon ship off the coast of Pasco County on Jan. 14, asked a federal court to limit its liability for "personal injury and death claims" to a total of $27,300.
That's not $27,300 per person. That's a total of $27,300 for all 50 people who jumped off the burning vessel — including the family of the woman who died hours afterward.
A U.S. district judge granted the petition on Jan. 31. Federal maritime rules allow the company to make such an attempt, but that doesn't necessarily mean any future payout will be limited to $27,300.
However, it does affect future litigation in two ways:
First, it pauses any civil lawsuits filed in state court — for now. That includes the suit filed by Holiday resident Deborah Jero, 65, alleging that Tropical Breeze's negligence resulted in serious injuries and mental trauma.
Second, it starts the clock running for anyone who wants to sue, collect damages or receive a settlement. They now have until March 23 to file their claims.
Tropical Breeze's latest filing, like everything else in this incident, will be the subject of future litigation. But Pinellas Park attorney Frank Butler, who is representing Jero, said Tropical Breeze didn't have to go this route.
"We don't question their right to do this," he said, "but if you care about your customers, your passengers, why are they doing this?"