Baltimore leaders accuse ship’s owner and manager of negligence in Key Bridge collapse

BALTIMORE– The owner and manager of the giant container ship that brought down the Francis Scott Key Bridge last month should be held fully liable for the deadly collapse, according to court documents filed Monday on behalf of Baltimore’s mayor and City Council.

The two companies filed a petition shortly after the March 26 collapse asking a court to limit their liability under a pre-Civil War provision of an 1851 maritime law — a routine but important procedure for such cases. A federal court in Maryland will ultimately decide who is responsible and how much they are owed in what could become one of the costliest maritime disasters in history.

Singapore-based Grace Ocean Private Ltd. owns the Dali, the ship that veered off course and crashed into the bridge. Synergy Marine Pte Ltd., also based in Singapore, is the vessel manager.

In their filing Monday, lawyers for the city accused them of negligence, arguing that the companies should have realized that the Dali was unsuitable for its voyage and, among other things, should have staffed the ship with a competent crew.

A spokesperson for the companies said Monday that it would be inappropriate to comment on the ongoing litigation.

The ship was en route to Sri Lanka when, shortly after leaving Baltimore, it lost power and struck one of the bridge’s support columns, causing the span to collapse and six members of a roadwork crew to plunge to their deaths.

“For more than four decades, freighters made thousands of trips per year under the Key Bridge without incident,” the city’s complaint reads. “There was nothing about March 26, 2024 that should have changed that.”

FBI agents boarded the stuck ship last week during a criminal investigation. A separate federal investigation by the National Transportation Safety Board will include an investigation into whether the ship experienced power problems before it began its journey, officials said. That research will generally focus on the electrical system of the Dali.

In their earlier petition, Grace Ocean and Synergy sought to limit their liability to approximately $43.6 million. The petition estimates that the ship itself is worth up to $90 million and that it owed more than $1.1 million in cargo revenue. The estimate also subtracts two major expenses: at least $28 million in repair costs and at least $19.5 million in salvage costs.

Grace Ocean also recently initiated a process requiring owners of the cargo on board to cover a portion of the salvage costs. The company has made a general average statement, which allows an external expert to determine what each stakeholder should contribute.

Baltimore leaders argue that the ship’s owner and operator should be held accountable for their role in the disaster, which has halted most maritime traffic through the Port of Baltimore and disrupted a key East Coast cargo route. The economic impact could be devastating for the Baltimore region, the filing said.

“Petitioners’ negligence caused them to destroy the Key Bridge and single-handedly close the Port of Baltimore, a source of jobs, municipal revenue, and no small amount of pride for the City of Baltimore and its residents,” the attorneys wrote.

Lawyers representing the collapse victims and their families have also vowed to hold the companies accountable and oppose their request for limited liability.

Meanwhile, salvage crews are working to remove thousands of tons of collapsed steel and concrete from the Patapsco River. They have opened three temporary canals to allow some ships to pass through the area, but the port’s main shipping channel is expected to remain closed for several more weeks.