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Who will pay to replace Baltimore's Key Bridge? The legal battle has already begun

Salvage crews in Baltimore continue to remove wreckage from the Dali on April 26, one month after the cargo ship smashed into the Francis Scott Key Bridge and caused it to collapse.
Chip Somodevilla
Getty Images
Salvage crews in Baltimore continue to remove wreckage from the Dali on April 26, one month after the cargo ship smashed into the Francis Scott Key Bridge and caused it to collapse.

Workers have yet to finish removing pieces of the Francis Scott Key Bridge from Baltimore Harbor.

Investigators are still trying to understand why a cargo ship called the Dali lost power before crashing into the bridge in March, killing six people, blocking the Patapsco River and severing an interstate highway.

But the fight over who will pay to replace the bridge is already underway.

"It's a very unusual circumstance. But in many respects, how the law is going to apply here is actually fairly well established," said Martin Davies, the director of the Maritime Law Center at Tulane University in New Orleans. "The difference will just be in the amounts at stake."

In terms of sheer destruction and economic havoc, the Key Bridge disaster may be unprecedented. But other ships have run into bridges before. Legal experts say those past accidents offer clues about who will likely wind up footing the bill to replace the Key Bridge and how long it will take to sort out.

The first legal steps have already begun

The ship's owner is trying to cap how much it pays under a law known as the Limitation of Liability Act of 1851 that has been used many times before, including by the owner of the Titanic.

The Dali's owner, Grace Ocean Private Limited, is asking a federal court to limit its liability to the present value of the ship and its cargo, which it estimates at roughly $43 million. That's just a small fraction of claims that could eventually reach into the billions of dollars.

But Davies doubts that this will work.

"Given the circumstances in this case, I'd be astonished if a federal court judge in Maryland were to conclude that the shipowner could limit its liability," he said.

In practice, U.S. courts rarely allow vessel owners to limit their liability, Davies said, especially when there are questions about whether the ship was seaworthy. And in the Dali's case, there are very big questions about that.

In video footage of the impact, the Dali's lightsflicker off and on and off again moments before the ship struck the bridge, for reasons that are still not clear.

The chair of the National Transportation Safety Board, Jennifer Homendy, told a Senate committee in April that investigators are focusing on the ship's electrical systems and circuit breakers.

"We have had the manufacturer of equipment in the engine room to look closely at the electrical power system. We're continuing to look at that," Homendy said. "That is where our focus is right now in this investigation."

The NTSB's preliminary investigation is expected later this month.

Historical precedents offer clues about liability

The closest historical precedent for the Key Bridge's collapse may be the Sunshine Skyway Bridge disaster. In 1980, a phosphate carrier slammed into a support pier, causing a 1,200-foot span of the bridge to collapse into Tampa Bay, killing 35 people.

The circumstances around that crash were very different, however. The ship, known as the MV Summit Venture, didn't lose power. Instead, it was driven off course by an unexpected storm.

The pilot, John Lerro, faced criminal charges. But he was acquitted after a trial.

"This was an unpredicted force of nature," said Steve Yerrid, the lawyer who represented Lerro. "Hurricane-force winds that came and went within minutes," he told NPR.

The owner of the Summit Venture also tried to limit its liability in that case, and failed.

The shipowner eventually paid tens of millions of dollars to the families of the victims, as well as $19 million to the state of Florida for the loss of the bridge — far less than the $244 million the state spent to replace it with a more modern design.

The case could take years to resolve

There's another, more recent disaster involving a cargo ship and a famous bridge in California.

A ship called the Cosco Busan struck the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge in 2007. The bridge sustained minor damage, but the ship spilled more than 50,000 gallons of fuel oil into the bay. The ship's owner and operator eventually paid $44 million for the environmental cleanup.

A 90-foot gash is seen on the side of the freighter ship Cosco Busan as it sits anchored in the San Francisco Bay on Nov. 13, 2007, in San Francisco.
Justin Sullivan / Getty Images
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A 90-foot gash is seen on the side of the freighter ship Cosco Busan as it sits anchored in the San Francisco Bay on Nov. 13, 2007, in San Francisco.

"The buck stops with the vessel owner," said lawyer Marisa Huber, a partner at the law firm Gibson Robb & Lindh, who represented the cargo insurers in the Cosco Busan case.

The ship's owner in that case also tried to limit its liability — and, again, it failed.

But Huber says there's another reason the ship's owner would do that: It gets lawyers for the government and the parties together in one place to start negotiating a settlement.

In the case of the Cosco Busan, that still took nearly four years. Huber says the Dali case could be the same.

"If I had to read the tea leaves, I would say there will be ultimate settlement of all of this by agreement," Huber said. "But it's going to take time to fight some of the fights."

In the end, the ship's owner — along with the insurers standing behind it — will probably pay out hundreds of millions or even billions of dollars, legal experts say. And Maryland will probably recoup at least some of the cost of a new bridge.

But if the past is any guide, that day is a long way off.

Copyright 2024 NPR

Joel Rose is a correspondent on NPR's National Desk. He covers immigration and breaking news.