Baltimore Business Owners File Class Action Lawsuit Over Key Bridge Collapse

Class action lawsuit alleges that Baltimore companies saw an 84% drop in business after the Key Bridge collapse, which they say was caused by negligence.

A publishing company in Baltimore has filed a class action lawsuit against the owners and operators of the ship that ran into the Francis Scott Key bridge in Baltimore earlier this year, causing it to collapse and effectively shut down the Port of Baltimore and access to surrounding businesses.

The complaint (PDF) was filed last week in the U.S. District Court for the District of Maryland by American Publishing, LLC, Karen Austin and Charles Austin, Jr., who have filed an objection to a petition by Grace Ocean Private Limited, the owner of the M/V Dali, and Synergy Marine PTE Ltd., the ship’s management company, which sought to limit their liability to a fraction of the cost of damages.

On March 26, the MV Dali, a fully loaded container ship, lost power and collided with one of the bridge’s supports, sending the entire structure toppling into the Patapsco River. Six construction workers died in the accident, and the collapsed structure continues to block the channel to the Port of Baltimore, which is one of only four ports on the U.S. east coast able to handle ships of its size.

Not only did the Francis Scott Key bridge collapse cut off a major artery of traffic for the eastern seaboard, but it also temporarily made the Port of Baltimore unusable until the debris can be cleared for safe passage. While some channels and shipping have been restored in recent days, the incident is still expected to have a massively detrimental effect on local businesses, like the publishing company owned by the Austins.

Experts say the bridge collapse could be the most expensive marine accident in history, with damages estimated to be between $2 billion and $4 billion. The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) has launched an investigation into the accident to determine what happened, who is at fault, and how such incidents could be prevented in the future. However, a number of Baltimore bridge collapse lawsuits are expected in the coming weeks and months.

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Baltimore Bridge Collapse Lawsuit

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Earlier this month, both Grace Ocean and Synergy Marine PTE filed a petition to limit liability for the Baltimore bridge collapse in the U.S. District Court for the District of Maryland, claiming they cannot be held responsible for the full damages caused by the crash. The petition urges the court to limit liability to $43.6 million, which is the value of the ship and its cargo, even if they are found to be liable for the accident.

The filing was made under the provisions of an 1851 law that limits liability to the remaining value of a vessel after a marine accident or incident occurs. It was put in place at a time when crossing oceans was a much more dangerous endeavor, with shipping losses common enough that if companies were held liable for the full damages of such incidents, many would have gone out of business.

However, the Austin’s lawsuit argues that the company’s deserve no such protection, claiming the accident was a “direct consequence of negligence” on the part of the defendants.

“Until March 26, 2024, the Key Bridge had not been struck by any vessel since 1980. Even with a conservative estimate of 1,500 annual visits—300 fewer than those recorded in 2023—it is calculated that ships made around 130,000 crossings under the Key Bridge before the incident involving the Dali,” the lawsuit states. “The negligence of the Petitioners is starkly evident, and no fault can reasonably be attributed to Claimants for the allision. Instead, the allision resulted directly and proximately from the Petitioners’ carelessness, negligence, gross negligence, and recklessness, compounded by the unseaworthiness of the vessel.”

The Austins indicate the cargo ship owners failed to employ an attentive crew, which did not adhere to navigational norms and customs, who lacked sufficient skills to operate the vessel safely, resulting in them failing to navigate the vessel properly. The plaintiffs also claim the ship was negligently equipped, and had not received proper maintenance, leading to problems with the engines, the propulsion system, and steering system, among numerous other failures.

Bridge Collapse Hurting Local Businesses

“Since the disastrous allision, commercial activities in and around Baltimore have virtually come to a standstill,” the lawsuit notes. “It could take several years for the area to recover fully.”

The couple have run their business since 2007, which includes a biannual publication of the Armed Forces Directory for military and civilian workers at the Aberdeen Proving Ground and Fort Meade. The collapse of the bridge led to a “dramatic halt in business activities”, which has resulted in significant revenue losses of up to 84% when compared to this time of year in previous years.

“Essentially, the negligence of the Petitioners not only led to the physical destruction of the Key Bridge but also precipitated a broader economic shutdown in Baltimore, severely affecting local business owners like Claimants,” the business owners state. “It is imperative that the Petitioners be held accountable for their actions, which have had such devastating impacts on the community and its businesses.”

The lawsuit seeks class action status on behalf of all businesses, individuals and other entities who have sustained losses due to the destruction of the Key Bridge.

The complaint follows a similar complaint and objection to the petition for liability protection filed by Baltimore City last month. The city’s Key bridge collapse lawsuit indicates the ship’s operators knew there were problems long before the accident, but kept the Dali in operation regardless of the risks.

Ongoing Key Bridge Collapse Investigations

The collapse of the Key Bridge, and the collision that caused it, are under investigation by the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB), which anticipates releasing a preliminary report in the coming days.

However, media reports indicate that the Federal Bureau of Investigations (FBI) is also conducting a criminal investigation of the incident. This has led to a pause by yet another investigation by the U.S. Coast Guard, to allow the Key bridge FBI investigation to proceed first.

As the investigation unfolds, it is expected that a number of other entities will also bear responsibility for the crash, either directly or from a failure to take steps that could have avoided the tragedy.

The investigations, cleanup of the debris, re-opening of the Port of Baltimore, and construction of a new bridge are expected to take some time. However, the Biden Administration, as well as state and local authorities, have vowed to address the problems as soon as possible.

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