Ship Owner in Bridge Collapse Seeks to Limit Its Liability

By Ethan M Steinberg and Chris Dolmetsch | April 2, 2024

The owner of the ship that rammed into a bridge in Baltimore last week, killing six workers and throwing the eastern US transportation network into chaos, is seeking to limit its liability to about $43.7 million.

The company, Grace Ocean, could face hundreds of millions of dollars in damage claims, legal experts say. On Monday it filed a petition jointly with Synergy Marine, which was operating the Singapore-flagged cargo ship Dali. They claim the collapse of the Francis Scott Key Bridge was “not due to any fault, neglect, or want of care” of the companies and that they shouldn’t be held liable for any loss or damage from the disaster.

But if they are held liable, it shouldn’t be for more than the current value of the ship and its cargo, the companies said. Following the crash, the total value has fallen from as much as $90 million to $43,670,000, according to the filing in federal court in Maryland.

Insurance Industry Readies for Historic Losses From Baltimore Bridge Tragedy

The petition, filed less than a week after the March 26 crash and as parts of the ship remain stuck at the site of the accident, is a common move for ship owners in the wake of catastrophic crashes. It invokes a 19th-century law once used by the Titanic’s owner to reduce the ship owner’s liability after a crash to the value of the ship and any pending freight.

Titanic Law Helps Ship Owner Limit Bridge Collapse Liability

The companies said they expect the liability limit they are seeking to be “substantially less than the amount that has been or will be claimed” in losses or damages. They also want any lawsuits filed against them as a result of the bridge collapse to be litigated in the Maryland federal court where the companies filed their petition.

The law that would enable Grace Ocean to curb its liability was also used by the owner of a dive boat that caught fire off the coast of southern California in 2019 and killed 34 people. In that case, boat owner Truth Aquatics filed its petition to a California federal court three days after the fatal voyage took place.

Families of the victims filed wrongful death claims for an unspecified amount in damages. That litigation has yet to be resolved more than four years later, a possible indication of a long legal fight for Grace Ocean and Synergy.

To overcome the liability limit, anyone seeking to recover funds from owners of the Dali would likely have to show that the ship wasn’t seaworthy due to issues such as an incompetent crew or mechanical issues, said Steven Yerrid, a lawyer who represented the pilot of the vessel that struck the Sunshine Skyway Bridge in Tampa, Florida, in 1980, killing 35 people.

“It’s an entitlement that’s allowed, it’s not a guarantee,” Yerrid said. “A ship owner that’s found to have an unseaworthy vessel, they lose the entitlement to limit the fund recovered by injured people or dead people or people who have the status to sue. The limitation fund is for those who sail seaworthy vessels with competent crews. If that’s not found they don’t get that limitation.”

The case is the Petition of Grace Ocean Private Limited et al for Exoneration from or Limitation of Liability, 24-cv-941, District of Maryland.

Top photo: The Dali container vessel after striking the Francis Scott Key Bridge in Baltimore, Maryland on March 26, 2024


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