In 2004, three women, two men and a 6-year-old boy drowned when a Baltimore water taxi flipped in bad weather in the city's inner harbor. There were 25 people on board the pontoon water taxi —the maximum number permitted aboard that size and type of watercraft according to the rules and paperwork issued by the Coast Guard to the owner of the Lady-D.
"The owners of the boat and the insurance company made a real effort for these people to settle as quickly as possible," says Hopkins, who represents both the owner of the Lady-D and its insurance company.
During the course of the investigation, it was discovered that the Coast Guard miscalculated the number of people that could safely be on board the Baltimore Shuttle. There should have been no more than 15 people on board the vessel—and overloading of the boat was likely a key case of the accident.
"If it hadn't been for the overloading, which was the result of a mistake by the Coast Guard, this accident never would have happened," says Hopkins.
Not only that, the judge in the case noted that the Coast Guard inspector, who certified the Lady D's safe capacity level, had accidently used applied standards to the L-Day actually meant for another style of boat.
The court's decision to leave liability with the boat frustrated the boat owner and the insurance company that paid out large insurance claims despite the fact that the Coast Guard's misinformation no doubt played a role in the accident. Hopkins' clients felt entitled to recoup the money paid out in the settlement based on the premise that the overloading was the direct result of the Coast Guard's error.
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"Our clients are considering whether they want to take the next step (that is try to take the case to the Supreme Court)," says Hopkins. Whether the Supreme Court would even entertain a case against the Coast Guard remains to be seen.
Robert Hopkins is a graduate of the University of Maryland School of Law (1988) and Trinity College (1985). He practices in the area of transportation law, product liability and commercial litigation both in the US and abroad. He is a partner at Duane Morris in Baltimore, Maryland.