Three survivors of the fatal Seaport Taxi tragedy in March filed a $17 million lawsuit yesterday in Baltimore Circuit Court, alleging that the owner and operator of the Lady D were "negligent and careless" by ordering the vessel into the choppy waters of the city harbor during an impending storm.
In their suit, Thomas Pierce, 60, of New Jersey, who lost his wife and daughter in the accident, and Eric Jahnsen, 25, and Sarah Kernagis, 23, of North Carolina, said that the boat owner, the nonprofit Living Classrooms Foundation, and the operator, Baltimore Harbor Shuttle, could have prevented the March 6 accident. It left five people dead and several injured when a pontoon boat overturned during a powerful burst of wind, tossing 23 passengers and two crew members into the water.
"This was a predicted storm, not a freak of nature," said Paul D. Bekman, one of the lawyers bringing the suit. "You could see this baby coming in from the west. All you had to do was look up and see the whole sky was black. That vessel never should have left."
A statement released by a public relations firm working for Living Classrooms said that nature, not the nonprofit organization, should be blamed in the accident.
"We are confident that the court will find that Seaport Taxi, Baltimore Harbor Shuttle and The Living Classrooms Foundation were not responsible for this tragedy and that the sudden and violent weather that day was an act of God," the statement reads. "Nevertheless, we have and will continue to offer assistance to the families of those who died or were injured in the capsizing of the Lady D."
In the suit, Pierce, Jahnsen and Kernagis contend that the nonprofit group "wrongfully ordered the vessel to leave Fort McHenry when it was unsafe to do so," and "failed to recognize that the design and operating capabilities [of the boat] would be unsafe and hazardous in high wind and rough water conditions."
The National Transportation Safety Board is investigating the cause of the accident and is expected to issue its report next year.
Joanne Pierce, 60, of Vineland, N.J., was the first confirmed fatality when she was pulled from the water the night the accident occurred. Her daughter, Lisa Pierce, 34, of Lyndhurst, N.J., was found trapped under the vessel by rescuers and died two days later at Harbor Hospital.
Others who died were Daniel Bentrem, 6, of Harrisonburg, Va.; Andrew M. Roccella, 26, of Virginia; and Corinne J. Schillings, 26, of Washington.
Rescuers, including Navy reservists and Baltimore firefighters assigned to the department's boat unit, pulled 20 people from the water after the 36-foot pontoon boat overturned and sent its passengers and crew into 36-degree, 50-foot-deep water. The boat was ferrying them from Fort McHenry to Fells Point.
Some passengers thrown overboard climbed atop the Lady D, others struggled in the frigid water and others were trapped underneath the vessel.
Jahnsen and Kernagis, an engaged couple, were two of the passengers temporarily trapped.
"When this boat flipped over, the deck became the ceiling. They were in a chamber," Bekman said. "They were trapped under the vessel. It was like being in a box that overturned. They managed to swim down and out."
The couple suffered contusions, bruises and cuts but, more notably, emotional stress, he said.
Bekman, who is bringing the suit with lawyer Stuart M. Salsbury, believes that there is no limit on the amount of damages in the case because the incident happened in the water and therefore would be governed by U.S. maritime law, not state law.
Under Maryland law, the damages for the three plaintiffs would be limited to about $4.5 million, Bekman said.
He also said that while nonprofit groups cannot be held liable, their insurance companies can. Bekman said he knows that Living Classrooms carries insurance, although he does not know how much.
In the lawsuit, lawyers for the three survivors argue that Living Classrooms was negligent in not obtaining the latest storm forecast. The defendants "failed to obtain and monitor proper, accurate and current weather information necessary for the safe operation of its water taxi service," the suit reads.
As much as an hour before the accident, weather services described a severe storm, with 40-mph to 50-mph winds, approaching the harbor, the suit says. Other water taxi services docked their boats because they recognized the "treacherous and dangerous nature" of the storm, reads the filing.
Minutes before 4 p.m., the captain of the boat, Francis O. Deppner, received a radio message telling him to return to Fort McHenry, the suit said. As he tried to return to shore, the Lady D capsized. Additionally, the suit says, the defendants "wrongfully overloaded the vessel" and failed to require passengers to wear life vests.
Since the accident, the Seaport Taxi service has made several changes to operate more cautiously and monitor weather more closely. The Coast Guard has reduced the capacity on most of the Seaport Taxi boats, which shuttle visitors around the Inner Harbor, by about 25 percent and asked the foundation to move the floats of two of the vessels farther apart to make the boats more stable.
Also, the foundation will no longer use its smallest class of boats - the size of the 8-by- 36-foot Lady D - to travel from Fort McHenry to Fells Point. Instead, those boats will be limited to a shorter and more protected route, between Canton and Fells Point.
The Lady D was badly damaged and will no longer operate.
Officials have recently posted guidelines at the helm of each boat, saying they should not operate in winds exceeding 25 to 30 mph. And the foundation has installed weather radios on each water taxi for alerts from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.