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Tug boat owner to pay $3.25M to settle accident claims.

Byline: Peter Vieth

A tug boat owner has agreed to pay more than $3 million to settle claims from a boatload of recreational fishermen who were run over by a barge in the James River last summer.

Two of the six weekend boaters were killed in the incident. Four survived being dragged under the barge. One reportedly had barnacle scratches across his back from the hull of the barge.

The claims of three survivors were settled in November. Three remaining claims, including the two death claims, were resolved in mediation late last month.

Forced underwater

For the fishing party, the experience was horrific, according to lawyers for the plaintiffs.

Three adult men and three boys were starting a fishing trip on a Saturday morning when their 23-foot craft drifted into the path of a barge loaded with oyster shells headed for a nearby oyster bed. The barge was being pushed by the 60-foot tugboat Sea Coast, owned by Maryland-based Dann Marine Towing LC.

A lawyer for the four who survived said the anglers had noticed the barge in the distance. "The next thing they knew, they see it right upon them," said attorney Emily Mapp Brannon of Norfolk.

The boaters were helpless as the barge overrode their craft and forced it underwater, Brannon said. Survivors reported feeling the barge scrape across their backs as it moved over them. One had cuts on his back from barnacles, the lawyer said.

"I was certain I was dead because everything was black. Then I saw light," one survivor said, according to Brannon.

The tugboat crew did not notice the accident at first, the plaintiffs' lawyers said. The crew of another tug, Miss Hannah, spotted the bow of the recreational boat pop up behind the pushing tug, according to a Coast Guard news release. "Good Samaritans" rescued the four survivors, the Coast Guard said.

The bodies of the two men who died were found two days later at the riverside in Newport News.

'Driving blind'

The victims' lawyers blamed an inattentive tug crew. They alleged the designated "lookout" was in the engine room when he should have been watching the water, and the tug captain could not see over the mound of oyster shells.

"He was essentially driving with blindfolds on. He could not see beyond the barge," Brannon said. "They didn't even realize they had run over the boat."

A filmmaker on the tug documenting the state-sponsored oyster restoration project near the James River Bridge captured the confusion of the crew as they realized they had run over a small boat, Brannon said.

The U.S. Coast Guard and Virginia Marine Resources Commission are jointly investigating the cause of the crash.

Admiralty law

Tugboat owner Dann Marine Towing sued in federal court to limit its liability under admiralty law. Dann sought a ruling that its liability was capped by the company's $500,000 interest in the tugboat.

"That was really where the battle was joined," said George T. Albiston of Norfolk, who represented the estate of 51-year-old fishing boat owner Leroy Parker.

With the looming specter of the limitation action, the parties talked. The claims of the youngest victims were resolved last fall, with one receiving $225,000 and two others accepting $175,000 each.

As a result of the mediation that ended on Feb. 26, the adult survivor will be paid $450,000, Brannon said. The two death claims were settled for $1 million each. The dead men were both from Emporia. Parker worked at the Boar's Head Brand plant in Jarratt, and the other decedent Robert Coleman, 58 had recently retired, lawyers said.

A Norfolk circuit judge approved settlement of the claims involving minor plaintiffs. The wrongful death claims will be reviewed by a federal judge, lawyers said.

No court date had been set for approval of the death settlements as of press time.

The Coleman estate was represented by Charisse L. Hines of Alexandria. She said the family declined to comment.

Dann Marine was represented by David N. Ventker of Norfolk. He was unavailable for comment.

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Author:Vieth, Peter
Publication:Virginia Lawyers Weekly
Date:Mar 11, 2019
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