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Fishermen file lawsuits against oil spill ship owners

By Julia Cheever

November 21, 2007

Fishermen who say their livelihoods have been devastated have filed at least two lawsuits against the owners and operators of the container ship that spilled 58,000 gallons of heavy bunker fuel into San Francisco Bay on Nov. 7.

The first was filed in federal court in San Francisco on Nov. 15 by owners and crew members of three crab fishing vessels.

The second was filed in San Francisco Superior Court yesterday by commercial fishermen John Tarantino of Corte Madera and Steven Fitz of El Granada in San Mateo County.

Both lawsuits say fishermen have suffered "profound" economic damage from the oil contamination and both seek to be certified as class actions on behalf of all commercial operations that catch fish in and near San Francisco Bay.

The defendants in both cases include Hong Kong-based Regal Stone Ltd., the owner of the Cosco Busan; Hanjin Shipping Co. Ltd. of Korea, which leased the ship; and Synergy Maritime Ltd. of Cyprus, described as the employer of the Chinese crew.

Tarantino's and Fitz's lawsuit also names bar pilot John Cota, 59, of Petaluma, who was piloting the ship when it hit a tower of the Bay Bridge and sustained a 100-foot-long gash that spilled out the 58,000 gallons of oil.

Their lawsuit alleges the spill was the result of "reckless indifference, inattention and mismanagement among those responsible for the control" of the 68,000-ton freighter.

It contends that toxic bunker fuel "can have an overwhelmingly detrimental effect on human and marine life" and that the contamination may pose a long-term as well immediate threat to Bay fish.

Both lawsuits seek financial compensation and a punitive award. Tarantino and Fitz are also asking for creation of a fund that would employ experts to test Bay fish to determine whether it is safe for human consumption now and in future years. The federal lawsuit asks for court supervision of a cleanup program.

Darrell Wilson, a spokesman for Regal Stone, said he could not comment specifically on the lawsuits.

Wilson said, "Regal Stone's first and most important concern is the response. We are not discussing the investigation or any legal matters out of respect for the process."

Frank Pitrie, a Burlingame attorney representing Tarantino and Fitz, said, "It's a loss of livelihood and fear that you're not going to be able to enjoy the success you've had in the past."

Pitrie predicted the two cases may proceed on parallel tracks in state and federal court because they are based on somewhat different legal theories.

While both include claims of negligence, the Superior Court lawsuit also includes claims under a California oil spill prevention and response law. The federal lawsuit is based on admiralty law.

San Francisco attorney William Audet, who filed the federal lawsuit, said he expects the lawsuits to be coordinated in some way and said there is "no question a lot of other cases will be filed."

In the federal case, U.S. District Judge Samuel Conti in San Francisco yesterday signed an arrest warrant requiring federal marshals to detain the ship along with another order allowing a private company, Marine Lenders Services LLC, to act as custodian.

Audet said the arrest warrant is an admiralty law mechanism intended to give plaintiffs a chance to seek the sale of a ship in order to be sure they will receive any compensation they might be awarded. He said he hopes the outcome of the action will be that an insurance company for the ship's owners will post a bond that would cover any possible future compensation.

Audet said he hopes to have the orders served on the ship soon. Wilson had no comment on the arrest warrant.

The Cosco Busan is currently at a repair facility in San Francisco, according to Bernadette Fees, a California Fish and Game Department spokeswoman at the U.S. Coast Guard's Unified Command Joint Information Center for the oil spill.


Copyright © 2007 by Bay City News, Inc. -- Republication, Rebroadcast or any other Reuse without the express written consent of Bay City News, Inc. is prohibited.




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