SAN DIEGO — Attorneys for the families of nine service members killed when an amphibious vehicle sunk off the coast of San Clemente Island last year announced a lawsuit against the manufacturer of tanks they characterized as “death traps.”
The suit, announced one year after the accident on July 30, 2020, targets BAE Systems, the company that made the assault amphibious vehicle, or AAV, that sunk during a training exercise.
“When these beautiful families sent their kids off to the military … they accepted certain things in their heart — which I believe all parents of military do — which is combat, defending our country, defending our freedoms,” Eric Dubin, one of the lawyers representing the families, said at a news conference Thursday.
“What you don’t accept or embrace in your heart is for your kids to die because of defective equipment.”
The lawsuit is the latest fallout for one of the U.S. Marine Corps’ deadliest training accidents in decades. It led to the firing of a general and job removal or other discipline for at least 11 other Marine officials.
An investigation by the branch found that the incident was caused by a series of human errors and mechanical problems that could have been averted. The investigation found inadequate training of the platoon that was given AAVs in “poor condition.” The platoon made repairs in a rush to meet a deadline, officials said.
“Ultimately this tragic mishap was preventable,” wrote Lt. Gen. Steven R. Rudder, commander of U.S. Marine Corps Forces, Pacific, in his review of the investigation.
Dubin said the families are now urging military officials to join them in pushing for new contracts involving the vessels, including “some kind of contract amendment to improve the AAVs that are coming down the line and improve the ones that we already have.”
“I’m often asked what these families want,” the attorney said. “And I can answer that with two words: accountability and justice.”
In Thursday’s presentation, loved ones spoke emotionally about the young service members killed in the accident.
“He’s my only son, he was my pride, my little guy, mama’s boy, you know? He meant the world to me,” said Evelyn Baltierra, who lost her 18-year-old son Bryan. “So when this occurred, it was just devastating.”
Legal representatives for the family Thursday reviewed what they described as “design defects” with the vehicles that had been unearthed in the official investigation.
Asked what responsibility the military should bear, Dubin said the families’ focus remained on the manufacturer. The suit alleges that defects in the AAV’s cargo hatch door left the servicemen trapped inside the vehicle with no way to get out.
Attorneys said the nine servicemembers spent 45 minutes trying to open the AAV’s hatch door, but could not force it open or place the door in a locked and open position. Attorney Annee Della Donna said many of the AAVs involved in the training mission were old and had reported maintenance issues, but that even with those problems, the men would have been able to escape the vehicle had the hatch door been operable.
“No training in the world would have got that 5,000-pound hatch open,” Dubin said.
In addition to the lawsuit, attorneys and the families are working to get an emergency egress system established on AAVs, which would allow for hatch doors to immediately open, as well as a door designed to open inward to allow easier egress from the vehicle.
“I don’t want this to happen to anybody else. This needs to be fixed,” said Christiana Sweetwood, mother of LCpl. Chase Sweetwood, who died just before his 19th birthday.
The families are barred from suing the military due to what’s called the Feres Doctrine, which prevents service members and their families from filing suit against the federal government for wrongful deaths or injuries sustained while serving.
“Yes, there was training issues. Yes, we believe that BAE is going to point the finger back at the Marines,” Dubin said. “But we all lose if that’s what it comes to.”