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Companies behind cargo ship that destroyed Baltimore’s Key Bridge seek exemption from legal liability

Twisted structure and road decking from the Francis Scott Key Bridge are draped across the bow of the container ship Dali where state and federal agencies have moved into a salvage phase, March 28, 2024. Early in the morning of March 26, the Dali lost power while leaving the Port of Baltimore and struck a support pier of the Key Bridge, causing a catastrophic failure. (Jerry Jackson/The Baltimore Sun/TNS)

The companies that own and manage the Dali have asked a federal judge to absolve them of liability from the cargo ship’s crash last week into Baltimore’s Francis Scott Key Bridge, which immediately collapsed, killing six people.

Grace Ocean Private Ltd., the owner, and Synergy Marine Pte Ltd., which manages the 984-foot cargo ship, are both based in Singapore. Together, they filed a claim in Baltimore’s U.S. District Court asking a judge to clear them from liability or limit damages to the value of the ship and its cargo, which they estimated at $43.7 million.

Shortly after leaving the Port of Baltimore for a months-long voyage to Sri Lanka, the Dali, which weighed more than 112,000 tons loaded with cargo, experienced a reported power outage near Key Bridge and smashed into one of its principal supporting piers around 1:30 a.m. Tuesday. The bridge crumbled immediately, sending a crew of workers who were repairing potholes on Interstate 695 tumbling into the frigid river below.

Authorities rescued two men quickly, but an expansive search, featuring boats, helicopters and divers has turned up only two of the bodies from the six-man crew. The other four more remain missing and are presumed dead. Their recovery efforts now focus on clearing the mess of mangled steel blocking the shipping channel that long provided cargo vessels passage into the Port of Baltimore.

Officials have pledged to hold those behind the ship accountable for the accident, depending on what an investigation by the National Transportation Safety Board turns up. That independent federal agency is probing everything from what went wrong aboard the Dali — and looking at its past — to the Key Bridge’s “fracture critical” design.

The costs of paying for the accident and its cleanup, and rebuilding the span, will run into the hundreds of millions of dollars if not more.

The Dali’s owner and manager wrote in their court filing Monday that the companies are “aware of potential demands or claims,” but that the identity of potential claimants and the amounts they were claiming were not yet known, their attorneys wrote.

“Petitioners further allege that they have valid defenses to any and all such claims,” the wrote.

They filed a claim under a “long-passed” statute — the Limitation of Liability Act of 1851 — designed to protect the maritime industry, said New Orleans attorney Hugh “Skip” Lambert, who specializes in maritime law. Their filing, if successful, will funnel all claims stemming from the deadly crash and bridge collapse through one court, and would put the question of liability in front of a judge rather than a jury.

“It’s only successful if the vessel owner is non negligent, meaning they didn’t do anything wrong,” Lambert said. “Now this boat hit a bridge, so you have to wonder whether or not there was any responsibility on the part of the owner to prevent that from happening, in other words to be negligent free, in other words without fault.”

“Most limitation of liability actions,” continued Lambert, “fail in limiting the liability because there’s usually some fault on the part of the vessel owner.”


© 2024 The Baltimore Sun

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