State sues Navy over Mathews Bridge collision
USNS Harry L. Martin hit bridge while being towed, caused $4 million in damage
JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – The Florida Department of Transportation has filed a lawsuit against the Navy and a marine-towing company over an accident in 2013 that caused $4 million in damage and temporarily closed a heavily traveled Jacksonville bridge.
The lawsuit, filed Friday in federal court in Jacksonville, stems from damage to the state-owned Mathews Bridge, which spans the St. Johns River.
The Navy vessel USNS 1st Lt. Harry L. Martin was being towed in September 2013 when it collided with the bridge.
Raising issues of negligence and "unseaworthiness," the lawsuit seeks payments from the Navy Military Sealift Command and Moran Towing Corp.
"This is what the state of Florida needed to do," said maritime attorney Rod Sullivan, who is not connected to the case. "I mean, if the United States could have come forward and accepted responsibility and paid for it, there would not have been the necessity for a lawsuit. But, unfortunately, that hasn't happened."
According to the suit, the MSC owns the vessel and hired Patriot Contract Services to manage and operate it. Patriot hired Moran Towing to "deadship tow" the vessel from Blount Island to a berth between the Mathews and Hart bridges.
During the transit, the highest point of the ship, the stern ramp, hit the bridge, causing approximately $4 million in physical damages.
The suit alleges that the crash was due to "the unseaworthiness" of the Martin and the "negligence" of the Navy and the towing company.
The suit claims that the vessel was about 6 feet higher than the height that the Navy and Patriot provided to Moran for the tow.
It also claims that the Martin was "unseaworthy" because the vessel was unable to lower its ramp for a deadship tow.
The suit said the Navy has a duty "to know the true height of its vessels" and "to keep the vessel in good safe operating condition."
The Navy should have known the height was incorrect and that the ramp was difficult to lower or incapable of being lowered to a safe height, the suit says.
"This is certainly an embarrassment," Sullivan said. "I mean, people who are accurately operating their ship and accurately know its dimensions don't allow this kind of thing to happen."
The suit also claims that Moran breached its duty by "failing to exercise reasonable care" during the tow. Moran is liable for the crash, the suit says.
"They are saying that Moran should have known that the bridge height was incorrectly marked on the charts, and they should have used that local knowledge, plus its knowledge of the ship, to have (kept) this from happening," Sullivan said.
The Navy issued a statement Monday saying it was reviewing the complaint and would be responding to the court.
News4Jax has also asked for comment from the FDOT and the towing company named in the suit, but neither has responded.
Engineers said the crash nearly caused the bridge to collapse and resulted in millions of dollars worth of damage.
The impact sheared off several bolts and dislodged a support beam. The bridge was closed for a month.
A U.S. Coast Guard investigation released last year found that the "air gap" under the Mathews Bridge was 149 feet, three feet lower than the previously published air gap. The Martin was also found to be more than five feet taller than the information provided to ship operators.
The investigation found that "the combined error of 8 feet is the primary causal factor that contributed to the accident."
Sullivan said he wouldn't be surprised if the FDOT's lawsuit went all the way to trial. He said he thinks the FDOT has a good case and would likely win a $4 million judgment.
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