Maryland Bridge Collapse: Potential Theories of Liability 

In the still, pre-dawn hours of Tuesday, March 26, 2024, a critical system failure aboard the Dali cargo ship plunged the vessel into a “complete blackout” on its departure from the Port of Baltimore. In practical terms, this meant that the ship’s engine and navigation equipment were no longer functional. Thus, despite the swift engagement of backup generators, the Dali’s propulsion system remained unresponsive as it careened down the freezing Patapsco River.

And so, with 984 feet of steel and machinery facing the Francis Scott Key Bridge head-on, emergency measures were taken to turn the listing ship port-side and drop anchor. In the following analysis, we at Schwartzapfel Lawyers take stock of potential liability theories resulting from this incident. In so doing, we examine the relationship between mechanical failures, human actions, and established safety protocols within the context of maritime law.

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Mechanical Failure and Vessel Responsibility

Initial reports indicate that the Dali experienced a sudden and complete loss of power, suggesting a mechanical failure that would have rendered the vessel incapable of navigation. As the ship is Singapore-flagged and operated by a Singapore-registered company, questions here arise regarding the maintenance and operational standards upheld by the owning and leasing entities.

To this end, liability may extend to these parties if it is proven that negligence in vessel upkeep or operation contributed to the power loss. In maritime law, negligence is a key factor in determining liability.

If it is shown that the owning or leasing entities did not meet the required standards for maintaining or operating the vessel, they could, in turn, be held responsible for any damages or injuries resulting from the power loss.

Pilot and Master Command

At the time of the crash, the ship was under the command of its captain (a/k/a master), who was being assisted by a Chesapeake Bay pilot specifically responsible for navigating the vessel through the local waterways. Given this context, the actions of both the pilot and the master following the power failure will likely figure prominently in determining liability.

Responsibility for the resulting damages may be assigned if there were any errors in judgment or failures to adhere to safety protocols. To establish liability, it must be demonstrated that the pilot and master had a duty of care, that there was a breach of this duty, and that this breach was both the but-for and proximate cause of the damages.

The extent of the damages directly caused by their actions or inactions will also define the scope of liability. In this case, both the pilot and master could be held liable if their negligence contributed to the ship’s collision and resulting collapse of the bridge.

Construction Worker Safety

The construction crew from Maryland-based Brawner Builders was working overnight to repair potholes on the major Baltimore artery when the Dali, traveling at approximately (9) mph, struck with enough force to cause the bridge to topple without apparent warning.

In the hours since this tragic event, workplace safety and the accountability of both the construction company and government authorities have become the focal point of discussions. Calls for an investigation specifically center on determining if adequate safety measures were in place and if the workers, six of whom were reported missing in the river, were properly informed and equipped to handle such emergencies.

In this way, the events of March 26, 2024 lead us to question not just their tragic nature but also their foreseeability as a matter of cause and liability.

Bridge Under Fire

Given the catastrophic impact on the bridge, particularly the collapse of a pylon, one can reasonably infer at least some liability on the part of the vessel’s owners and operators. Connectively, the design and maintenance of the bridge may also come under scrutiny, as the ability of the structure to withstand certain acts of force — natural and otherwise — is an essential component of its safety profile.

As well, the condition and integrity of any nearby dolphins, which serve as protective hardpoints (i.e., sturdy structures), points of stabilization, and mooring points, may be examined for their role in mitigating or exacerbating the ship’s impact. Note: If no dolphins are found to have been installed, their absence could potentially increase liability for the bridge’s design and maintenance authorities.

Worker Rights & YOU

The Francis Scott Key Bridge collapse is a sobering reminder of the need for rigorous safety protocols and ongoing maintenance of maritime and construction-related infrastructure. From the failures of the Dali to the roles of the captain and pilot, and further to the conditions of the bridge and the training and awareness of the workers, each aspect requires thorough investigation.

With more than (150) years of combined experience, Schwartzapfel Lawyers is no stranger to this type of work. In point of fact, our track record of success speaks for itself. But to hear it from one of our in-house personal injury attorneys directly, call us now at 1-516-342-2200. No matter your situation, it will be our honor and privilege to fight for you!

As additional details emerge concerning the events of March 26, 2024, the debate over fault and liability is sure to intensify. For now, our thoughts and prayers are with all those affected by this tragedy.

Works Cited

“Live Updates: Coast Guard Ends Search for 6 Missing in Bridge Disaster.” The New York Times, 26 Mar. 2024.

Schwartzapfel, Steven. “Contributory vs. Comparative Negligence.” Fighting For You, 31 May, 2023.

“What we know so far about the Baltimore bridge collapse.” PBS News Hour, March 26, 2024.

Yan, Holly, and Yahya Abou-Ghazala. “What we know about the Baltimore bridge collapse.” CNN, 26 Mar. 2024.

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