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April 17, 2024

Shipowner Aims to Cap Liability Amid Fallout from Baltimore Bridge Tragedy

In the aftermath of the catastrophic bridge collapse in Baltimore, the ship’s owner is moving to cap its liability, setting the stage for a legal battle that could have far-reaching consequences. Grace Ocean, the owner of the vessel involved in the fatal collision with the Francis Scott Key Bridge, is seeking to limit its financial exposure to approximately $43.7 million.

The incident, which occurred last week, resulted in the tragic loss of six lives and caused widespread disruption to the transportation network in the eastern United States. Legal experts anticipate that Grace Ocean could potentially face damages totaling hundreds of millions of dollars as a result of the disaster.

In a strategic maneuver, Grace Ocean, along with Synergy Marine, the operator of the Singapore-flagged cargo ship Dali, filed a petition asserting that the collapse of the bridge was not a result of any fault or neglect on their part. They argue that they should not be held entirely liable for the loss and damage stemming from the incident.

The petition, lodged less than a week after the March 26 crash, invokes a 19th-century maritime law that historically has been utilized to limit ship owners’ liability to the value of the vessel and any pending freight. According to documents filed in federal court in Maryland, the current value of the ship and its cargo has significantly decreased from an estimated $90 million to $43,670,000 following the collision.

Grace Ocean and Synergy Marine express confidence that the liability cap they are seeking will be substantially lower than the total amount of claims for losses or damages expected to be filed against them. Additionally, they are pushing for any legal proceedings arising from the bridge collapse to be conducted in the Maryland federal court where they filed their petition.

This legal tactic echoes a similar strategy employed by the owner of a dive boat involved in a fatal fire off the coast of southern California in 2019, where liability was capped at the value of the vessel and pending freight. The prolonged litigation in that case serves as a stark reminder of the potential for protracted legal battles ahead for Grace Ocean and Synergy Marine.

To challenge the liability cap, claimants seeking compensation would likely need to demonstrate that the ship was unseaworthy due to factors such as crew incompetence or mechanical issues. Failure to establish the vessel’s seaworthiness could undermine the validity of the liability limitation.

Steven Yerrid, a prominent maritime lawyer, emphasizes that the entitlement to limit liability is contingent upon the vessel being deemed seaworthy with competent crews. Any findings of unseaworthiness could jeopardize the shipowner’s ability to restrict financial liability.

As the legal proceedings unfold, the case highlights the complexities of maritime law and underscores the challenges in apportioning liability in the aftermath of tragic accidents at sea.

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