A federal judge in Florida has set a Dec. 21 deadline by which families of the 33 mariners lost on the El Faro must file damage claims.

U.S. District Court Judge Harvey Schlesinger set the deadline after TOTE Maritime, the owner of El Faro, requested limited liability in the case, saying it had “exercised due diligence” to ensure that the vessel was seaworthy and well-equipped for its Sept. 29 run between Jacksonville, Fla. and San Juan Puerto Rico.

TOTE is seeking to cap damages at $15 million and arguing that the company should be “exonerated from liability for any and all losses or damages sustained during the voyage ... and from any and all claims for damages that have been or may hereafter be made.”

The 45-day deadline for damage claims is allowed under a 19th century maritime law that TOTE invoked in a federal lawsuit filing last week, Reuters reported. Maritime attorney Kurt Arnold, whose firm, Arnold & Itkin is representing the families of two lost crew members, said that normally a family would have three years to decide whether or not bring claim against TOTE.

The El Faro went missing on Oct. 1 during Hurricane Joaquin and the Coast Guard suspended its search for survivors on Oct. 7. A U.S. Navy search team contracted by the National Transportation Safety Board found the wreck of the vessel on Oct. 31 in 15,000’ of water in the vicinity of the ship's last known position northeast of Crooked Island in the Bahamas.

Six lawsuits had been filed against TOTE on behalf of crew members’ families. The judge’s order places a stay on those suits and prevents any further lawsuits against the company. It also requires that all damage claims must be filed in Jacksonville. The same Dec. 21 deadline applies to families who wish to contest TOTE's claim that it is not at fault in the sinking.

The families who have sued the company charge that the ship was old and in ill repair, and that sending it out in the path of a hurricane was reckless.

“TOTE has tried to shield itself from taking responsibility for the loss of many lives by hiding behind the arcane Limited Liability Act of 1851,” said Arnold. “In effect, by filing for this limitation, TOTE is suing the families of those lost on the El Faro with the hopes of capping their liability before any litigation begins."