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  Maritime - Legal News


The owner of a tugboat that collided with a ship last month, dumping nearly 170,000 gallons of oil into the Houston Ship Channel, claims in court filings the ship was speeding and being operated in a reckless manner.

Houston-based Kirby Inland Marine alleges in court documents filed earlier this month that the March 22 collision, which occurred after the ship struck a barge the tugboat had been pulling, was caused by gross negligence on the part of the ship's owner, Sea Galaxy Marine based in Liberia in West Africa. In its own court filings, Sea Galaxy says the collision was not its fault.

The U.S. Coast Guard, which is still investigating the cause of the accident, did not immediately return a call Thursday seeking comment on the claims being made by the companies.

Two barges that were being pulled by the Kirby Inland-owned tugboat Miss Susan had been leaving Texas City and heading for the Intracoastal Waterway while a Sea Galaxy-owned inbound ship, the Summer Wind, was traveling through the Houston Ship Channel. The collision happened when the barges made a left turn to enter the Intracoastal Waterway and were crossing the ship channel.

But Kirby Inland alleged in court documents filed earlier this month that the tugboat had broadcast its position to let all vessels in the vicinity know its position. At the time, the Houston Ship Channel was under a fog advisory.


A theater in Italy turned into a courtroom Monday, providing extra space for all those who needed to hear the evidence against the captain of a shipwrecked cruise ship.

The case of Francesco Schettino, 51, has generated such interest that the Tuscan city of Grosseto chose the larger space to accommodate all those who had a legitimate claim to be at the closed-door hearing.

Thirty-two people died after Schettino, in a stunt, took the Costa Concordia cruise ship off course and brought it close to the Tuscan island of Giglio on Jan 13. The ship then ran aground and capsized. Schettino himself became a lightning rod for international disdain for having left the ship before everyone was evacuated.

Schettino appeared at the hearing Monday, as well as passengers who survived the deadly shipwreck, the families of those who died in it and scores of lawyers trying to get more compensation for them.


Cruise passenger pleads guilty to dropping anchor

  Maritime  -   POSTED: 2011/08/22 09:09

A California man has pleaded guilty to dropping an anchor on a Tampa-bound cruise ship.

Federal prosecutors in Tampa said Friday that 45-year-old Rick Ehlert pleaded guilty to one count of attempting to damage a maritime facility. He faces up to 20 years in prison.

Authorities say the MS Ryndam was traveling from Costa Maya, Mexico, to Tampa on Nov. 27, 2010. A surveillance video shows Ehlert entering a restricted area and dropping the 18-ton stern anchor.

When confronted by authorities, Ehlert told them he was drunk at the time. He also said the cruise ship's anchor system was similar to the system on his own 50-foot boat. Investigators say the Holland America ship avoided damage because the anchor didn't hit the sea floor.

Court slashes judgment in Exxon Valdez disaster

  Maritime  -   POSTED: 2008/06/25 12:11

The Supreme Court on Wednesday slashed the $2.5 billion punitive damages award in the 1989 Exxon Valdez disaster to $500 million.

The court ruled that victims of the worst oil spill in U.S. history may collect punitive damages from Exxon Mobil Corp., but not as much as a federal appeals court determined.

Justice David Souter wrote for the court that punitive damages may not exceed what the company already paid to compensate victims for economic losses, about $500 million compensation.

Souter said a penalty should be "reasonably predictable" in its severity.

Exxon asked the high court to reject the punitive damages judgment, saying it already has spent $3.4 billion in response to the accident that fouled 1,200 miles of Alaska coastline.

A jury decided Exxon should pay $5 billion in punitive damages. A federal appeals court cut that verdict in half in 1994.

The Supreme Court divided on its decision, 5-3, with Justice Samuel Alito taking no part in the case because he owns Exxon stock.

Exxon has fought vigorously to reduce or erase the punitive damages verdict by a jury in Alaska four years ago for the accident that dumped 11 million gallons of oil into Prince William Sound. The environmental disaster led to the deaths of hundreds of thousands of seabirds and marine animals.

Nearly 33,000 Alaskans are in line to share in the award, about $15,000 a person. They would have collected $75,000 each under the $2.5 billion judgment.

In dissent, Justice John Paul Stevens supported the $2.5 billion figure for punitive damages, saying Congress has chosen not to impose restrictions in such circumstances.

Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg also dissented, saying the court was engaging in "lawmaking" by concluding that punitive damages may not exceed what the company already paid to compensate victims for economic losses.

"The new law made by the court should have been left to Congress," wrote Ginsburg. Justice Stephen Breyer made a similar point, opposing a rigid 1 to 1 ratio of punitive damages to victim compensation.

Writing for the majority, Souter said that traditionally, courts have accepted primary responsibility for reviewing punitive damages and "it is hard to see how the judiciary can wash its hands" of the problem by pointing to Congress for a solution.

A jury decided that the company should pay $5 billion in punitive damages. A federal appeals court cut that verdict in half.

The problem for the people, businesses and governments who waged the lengthy legal fight against Exxon is that the Supreme Court in recent years has become more receptive to limiting punitive damages awards. The Exxon Valdez case differs from the others in that it involves issues peculiar to laws governing accidents on the water.

Overall, Exxon has paid $3.4 billion in fines, penalties, cleanup costs, claims and other expenses resulting from the worst oil spill in U.S. history.

The commercial fishermen, Native Alaskans, landowners, businesses and local governments involved in the lawsuit have each received about $15,000 so far "for having their lives and livelihood destroyed and haven't received a dime of emotional-distress damages," their Supreme Court lawyer, Jeffrey Fisher, said when the court heard arguments in February.



Exxon Mobil Corp urged the U.S. Supreme Court on Wednesday to overturn the $2.5 billion in punitive damages for the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill off Alaska, arguing it should not be punished for the mistakes of the ship's captain. But the lawyer for about 33,000 commercial fishermen and others harmed by the nation's worst tanker spill replied that Exxon Mobil for three years had overlooked numerous reports that Captain Joseph Hazelwood had a drinking problem.

The 90 minutes of arguments before the high court occurred just several weeks after the huge Texas-based oil company reported the highest-ever quarterly profit for a U.S. company of $11.7 billion.

Exxon Mobil's lawyer, Walter Dellinger, told the high court the company already has paid $3.4 billion for the spill and cannot be held liable for additional punitive damages under federal maritime law.

"Exxon gained nothing by what went wrong in this case and paid dearly for it," said Dellinger, who argued that the company had no malicious intent or improper profit motive.

A key issue in the case is whether the company can be held liable for the mistakes of Hazelwood, who violated company rules when the Exxon Valdez ran aground in Alaska's Prince William Sound in March 1989, spilling about 11 million gallons of crude oil.

The spill spread oil on more than 1,200 miles of coastline, closed fisheries and killed thousands of marine mammals and hundreds of thousands of sea birds.

The justices closely questioned both sides and gave no firm indication of how they would rule -- although in past cases they generally have imposed limits on huge awards of punitive damages imposed on corporate defendants.


Bush to Warn Cuba on Plan for Transition

  Maritime  -   POSTED: 2007/10/24 13:28

President Bush, ever pushing for a Cuba without Fidel Castro, wants allies around the world to offer money and political support so the island can be ready to transform itself. It is Bush's vision for Cuban regime change: providing help on the outside, prodding change on the inside. Seizing on Castro's fading health as a rare opening, Bush was to ask other nations Wednesday to help Cuba become a free society.

In remarks prepared for delivery at the State Department — his first standalone address on Cuba in four years — Bush looks to the day when Castro is gone. Bush describes a nation in which Cuban people choose a representative government and enjoy basic freedoms, with support from a broad international coalition.

For now, though, Castro is still the island's unchallenged leader, as he has been for almost 50 years. And he remains a nemesis to Bush, whom he accuses of being obsessed with Cuba and of threatening humanity with nuclear war. At the age of 81, Castro is ailing and rarely seen in public. But life has changed little on the island under the authority of his brother, 76-year-old Raul Castro, who has been his elder brother's hand-picked successor for decades.

Bush was expected to tout peaceful, pro-democracy movements in Cuba and call on other countries to get behind them. In a direct appeal to ordinary citizens in Cuba, he was to tell them they have the power to change their country, but the White House says that is not meant to be a call for armed rebellion.

Bush proposes at least three initiatives: the creation of an international "freedom fund" to help Cuba's potential rebuilding of its country one day; a U.S. licensing of private groups to provide Internet access to Cuban students, and an invitation to Cuban youth to join a scholarship program.

The latter two offerings help the Bush administration underscore the kind of real-life limitations that Cubans now face, from blocked Internet access to restricted information about their leaders to denial of legal protections. The creation of the international fund is meant to speed up societal transformation.

"We all know that Cuba is going to face very significant requirements to rebuild itself," said a senior administration official, who spoke on condition of anonymity to avoid pre-empting the president. "There's a whole set of challenges that Cuba is going to face. The United States will clearly want to help the Cubans as they define what it is they need, but we think the international community should be thinking that way as well."

Washington's decades-old economic embargo on Cuba prohibits U.S. tourists from visiting the island and chokes off nearly all trade between both countries. Bush will ask Congress to maintain the embargo, which has come under scrutiny and calls for reassessment from some lawmakers.

Cuba staged municipal elections on Sunday, the first step in a process that will determine whether Fidel Castro is re-elected or replaced next year. The Communist Party is the only one allowed, and while candidates do not have to be members, critics claim they are the only ones who ever win.

Bush, increasingly, is speaking of a Castro-free Cuba. As he put it earlier this month: "In Havana, the long rule of a cruel dictator is nearing an end."



The chief engineers of two American-flagged car-carrier ships based in Baltimore have pleaded guilty to criminal charges related to the deliberate discharge of oil-contaminated bilge waste through “magic pipes” that bypassed required pollution prevention equipment, announced Acting Assistant Attorney General Matthew J. McKeown for the Department of Justice’s Environment and Natural Resources Division and U.S. Attorney for the District of Maryland Rod J. Rosenstein.

Stephen Karas, the former chief engineer of the M/V Tanabata (renamed the M/V Resolve) pleaded guilty today to conspiracy and making false statements before U.S. District Judge William M. Nickerson. Deniz Sharpe, the former chief engineer of the M/V Fidelio (renamed the M/V Patriot), pleaded guilty on March 7, 2007 to violating the Act to Prevent Pollution form Ships (APPS). Both Karas and Sharpe were employed by Pacific Gulf Marine Inc. (PGM), a vessel operator based in Gretna, La.

PGM pleaded guilty to charges related to its role in deliberately discharging hundreds of thousands of gallons of oil-contaminated bilge waste from four of its giant car-carrier ships used to transport vehicles, including the Tanabata and Fidelio. The shipping company was sentenced on Jan. 24, 2007, to pay $1 million criminal fines and $500,000 in community service, and serve three years of probation under the terms of an environmental compliance plan which will be audited by a court-appointed monitor.

According to documents filed in court, including a grand jury indictment and a factual statement signed by Karas, the Tanabata had a removable bypass pipe that was used repeatedly to discharge oil-contaminated bilge waste overboard in violation of the APPS. Karas admitted to the use of a bypass pipe and to concealing the pipe during port calls in the United States to prevent its discovery by the Coast Guard. Karas also admitted to concealing the unlawful discharges in a false oil record book, a required log regularly inspected by the Coast Guard. The log claimed the discharges were being made through the oily water separator, a required pollution prevention device, when in reality it was being bypassed entirely.

During a March 29, 2003, Coast Guard inspectors in Baltimore lifted a deckplate and found a permanently installed bypass pipe on the Fidelio that was part of the ship’s original construction. The Coast Guard directed the removal of the bypass pipe which was filled with black oil, according to papers filed in court. Sharpe, who was promoted to chief engineer sometime after the inspection, continued making unlawful discharges through a new method that involved the use of a fire pump which were concealed with a false oil record book for the ship.

Engine room operations on board large ocean-going vessels generate large amounts of waste oil and oil-contaminated bilge waste. International and U.S. law prohibit the discharge of waste containing more than 15 parts per million oil and without treatment by an oil water separator and oil sensing equipment. The regime, established by the MARPOL Convention (Annex I)—a treaty signed by more than 135 countries representing approximately 97.5 % of the world’s commercial tonnage and implemented into U.S. law by the APPS—also requires that overboard discharges be recorded in an oil record book. Another chief engineer of the Tanabata remains under indictment and the investigation is continuing. An indictment represents allegations brought by a grand jury. Defendants are presumed innocent until proven guilty.

This investigation was conducted by the Chesapeake Regional Office of the Coast Guard Investigative Service and the EPA Criminal Investigation Division. Additional assistance was provided by U.S. Coast Guard Sector Baltimore, U.S. Coast Guard Activities Europe, U.S. Coast Guard Fifth District Legal Office, Coast Guard Office of International and Maritime Law, and Coast Guard Headquarters Office of Investigations and Analysis. The case is being prosecuted by the U.S. Department of Justice Environmental Crimes Section and the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the District of Maryland.


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