Could ‘Titanic law’ protect owner of ship in Baltimore bridge crash from compensation claims?

The owner of the ship that collided with the Baltimore Francis Scott Key Bridge has filed a petition in federal court to restrict its amount of liability in the tragedy which resulted in the deaths of six people.

Grace Ocean Private Limited, the owner of the Dali ship, and Synergy Marine Group, the ship’s manager, submitted the filing under the Limitation of Liability Act of 1851, a piece of legislation that enables ship owners to limit their liability for certain claims to the value of the vessel and its cargo at the end of its journey.

The law notably protected the makers of the “Titanic”. After the ship sank in 1912, its owner, White Star Line, was served with hundreds of lawsuits totalling $16m in damages. Citing the 1851 law, the case ultimately made its way to the US Supreme Court. In the end, negotiations outside of court resulted in a settlement of $664,000 in July 1916.

To get the funds, claimants had to end their claims in the US and England, where the ship set sail, and acknowledge that the owner “had no privity or knowledge of any negligence”, according to documents from the Library of Congress.

The fallen Francis Scott Key Bridge in Baltimore is pictured Sunday, March 31, 2024 (AP)
The fallen Francis Scott Key Bridge in Baltimore is pictured Sunday, March 31, 2024 (AP)

Experts say the Monday filing in the Baltimore case was not surprising. “This is exactly what I was expecting would occur,” Martin Davies, an admiralty law professor at Tulane University, said.

The filings argue that the accident did not stem from any actions or neglect from the owner, the vessel or onboard crew members. The records state that the value of the ship at the time of the incident did not exceed $90m. Estimated repair costs are $28m, while salvage costs are $19m.

The companies are offering an interim stipulation of $43m, even though the total costs of the destruction have not yet been determined. Mr Davies said that any claimants, presumed to be relatives of the six men who died in the collapse, and the state can challenge the amount at a later date.

However, the filing will limit any potential claimants from pursuing damages outside of the Baltimore district court.

The court may also adjust the numbers in the future, he said.

Sean Pribyl, a partner at Holland & Knight, a firm that specialises in maritime law, said that a more accurate estimate is likely to come from any federal investigations that ensue.

The National Transportation Safety Board has opened a probe into the issue. Federal investigations typically take two years to complete. At the end of the investigation, the agency could make recommendations and provide a final assessment of the costs involved. Damages could also be determined in any litigation that arises from the incident.

Last week, President Joe Biden’s administration approved $60m in emergency aid to begin the process of removing debris from the water. In a news release, the US Department of Transportation referred to the funds as a “downpayment toward initial costs”.

When asked if the government plans on going after the shipping company during a briefing last week, US Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg said, “Any private party that is found responsible and liable will be held accountable”.