Foss Maritime sued after bridge collapse

LOUISVILLE, Ky. — Kentucky transportation officials are suing seven members of the crew of a cargo ship that struck and collapsed part of a bridge over the Tennessee River two years ago, causing millions in damage and diverting traffic for four months.

In a lawsuit that was moved to federal court this week, the state Transportation Cabinet said it spent at least $7 million to repair the Eggner’s Ferry Bridge after the Delta Mariner struck it on Jan. 26, 2012. The cabinet’s lawsuit, initially filed in state court in January, said the ship’s crew ignored repeated warnings from the U.S. Coast Guard and another vessel on the river that day about the navigation lights being out on the bridge.

The cargo ship’s owner, Seattle-based Foss Maritime, said in a written statement Thursday that it doesn’t comment on pending court actions.

“We have no estimate on when action will be taken in either of these cases,” the statement said.

The state didn’t specify how much it is seeking in damages from the crew members. Along with the $7 million in repairs, transportation officials say the state incurred $186,000 in compensable damages.

The National Transportation Safety Board concluded that the missed and ignored warnings were among a series of errors that led to the cargo ship striking and tearing down a 322-foot section of the span that carries traffic from near Aurora, Ky., to Land Between The Lakes National Recreation Area in western Kentucky.

In the days before the ship hit the bridge at mile marker 41.7, the Coast Guard broadcast warnings about work being done on the span and the lights being out.

“All mariners are requested to transit this area with caution,” the warning stated.

The Transportation Cabinet said the pilot house crew on the Delta Mariner saw the lights were out, but failed to steer the ship through a marked section that would have been safe to pass.

The bridge collapse stopped traffic over the waterway for about four months before repairs were completed. NTSB personnel said Kentucky transportation officials have since changed the way lights on the bridge are maintained. Investigators recommended that Foss Maritime develop and implement a better passage plan for Delta Mariner’s voyage and clearly define responsibilities while crew members are on the bridge of the vessel.

Kentucky officials are seeking $7.1 million in damages from Foss Maritime. BellSouth Telecommunications filed a $59,000 damages claim, and the owners of a nearby restaurant filed a $33,000 claim for lost income while the bridge was being repaired for four months. Foss Maritime has asked a federal judge to rule it was not responsible for causing the collapse because some of the bridge’s lights were not working.

Under maritime law, Foss Maritime doesn’t have to sue another party. Instead, it can ask a judge to rule on the extent of liability and to halt all other lawsuits and legal proceedings while that determination is made.

The deadline for claims passed in December 2012. As a formality, the company moved a month later to stop any further claims from being filed.

The Delta Mariner was carrying an Atlas rocket booster and other components for the U.S. Air Force’s AEHF-2 mission from Decatur, Ala., to Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida, a trip that normally takes about 10 days. The rocket parts were not damaged, and there was no change in the scheduled launch date, the company has said.

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