Baltimore City Files Lawsuit Over Key Bridge Collapse, Alleging Container Ship Was “Unseaworthy”

The city urges the federal court to reject a petition by the ship's owners and managers to limit their liability for the bridge collapse.

The City of Baltimore has filed a lawsuit against the owners of the container ship which crashed into the Francis Scott Key Bridge last month, causing it to collapse and kill six construction workers.

The complaint (PDF) was filed on April 22 in the U.S. District Court for the District of Maryland, naming Grace Ocean Private Limited, the owners of the M/V Dali, and Synergy Marine PTE Ltd., the ship’s management company, as the defendants. The city accuses the companies of negligence, indicating that the container ship was “unseaworthy” at the time of the crash.

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.

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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City Argues Against Limiting Liability for Baltimore Bridge Collapse

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, according to Baltimore City’s lawsuit filed in response to the petition, boats passed under the bridge about 3,600 times per year before the collapse, and this was the first time a container ship had struck the bridge since it was constructed more than 40 years ago.

The City indicates the ship’s operators knew there were problems long before the accident, but kept the Dali in operation regardless of the risks.

“None of this should have happened. Reporting has indicated that, even before leaving port, alarms showing an inconsistent power supply on the Dali had sounded,” the lawsuit states. “The Dali left port anyway, despite its clearly unseaworthy condition.”

The lawsuit calls the defendants’ actions, “grossly and potentially criminally negligent”, and urges the court to reject limitations on their liability. Baltimore’s complaint notes that the proposed $43.6 million liability limit would be far less than the amount likely to be claimed for losses and damages resulting from the loss of the bridge, which is expected to negatively affect local jobs and businesses, temporarily shut down one of the largest ports on the eastern seaboard, and now requires that the massive bridge be replaced.

FBI Investigation Under Way

Just days before the lawsuit was filed, news reports indicated that the Federal Bureau of Investigations had launched a criminal probe into the accident.

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 investigation, 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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