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Lawsuit being filed against AAV manufacturer in deaths of Marines, sailor off San Clemente Island

Posted at 12:00 PM, Jul 29, 2021
and last updated 2021-07-29 15:00:08-04

OCEANSIDE, Calif. (KGTV) -- The families of the nine military service members who died during a training accident off San Clemente Island in July 2020 announced the filing of a lawsuit against the manufacturer of the amphibious assault vehicle (AAV) they were in.

At a Thursday morning news conference, the families’ lawyers referred to the AAVs the service members were in as “death traps,” saying it was designed with defective equipment. The lawyers are filing suit against BAE Systems, the AAV manufacturer, citing a design defect.

Christiana Sweetwood couldn’t hold back the tears as she spoke about her son, Lance Cpl. Chase Sweetwood, who was one of eight Marines and sailors killed during a training accident on July 30, 2020, when the AAV they were in sank.

“They took my life. He left behind seven other brothers and sisters, and they loved that boy. There’s a hole in my family I can’t fix, and I don’t want another mother to open her door at 7 a.m. and see two casualty officers telling her that her son is missing,” she said.

Seven members of the crew aboard the AAV were able to escape the sinking craft and survived.

The body of one Marine was recovered shortly after the accident. The naval Undersea Rescue Command recovered the other victims' remains from the sea floor eight days later.

The Marine Corps’ official report said the incident was the combination of “human and mechanical failures that caused the sinking of the AAV and contributed to delayed rescue effort.”

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.

Annee Della Donna, one of the attorneys representing the families, said, “There was no way for them to get out alive, and BAE Systems has known about this defect for decades and they never bothered to fix it or notify the military.”

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.

The attorneys also said that despite negligence and human errors alleged on the part of military members in the Marine Corps investigation, 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.

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.

Della Donna said the families are also calling for the military to keep all AAVs from being used in the water until the necessary design changes are made.

ABC 10News reached out to BAE Systems for a comment, but the company did not respond as of the publication of this story.

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City News Service contributed to this report