Md. Water Taxi Insurer Sues Coast Guard, Citing Too Many Passengers

February 21, 2006

Insurers for the company that ran the water taxi that capsized in the Inner Harbor, killing five people, sued the U.S. Coast Guard on Friday, claiming the military branch certified the taxi for too many passengers.

The lawsuit was filed in U.S. District Court in Baltimore.

The insurance companies allege that the vessel was not properly tested for stability by the Coast Guard before it was put to use and it should not have been allowed to carry 25 people.

The boat, run by Seaport Taxi, was one of several small water taxis that go between stops on Baltimore’s Inner Harbor. On March 6, 2004, it had just left Fort McHenry with 25 people on board when severe weather moved into the region. Another Seaport captain radioed the Lady D’s captain, Francis Deppner, suggesting he steer the boat to shelter. Deppner replied that it was “an excellent idea.”

Three minutes later, the Lady D was struck with winds nearing 50 mph, causing the 36-foot long boat to flip.

The National Weather Service concluded in a report released in August that its forecasters were using limited radar information that day, preventing them from giving timely warnings of the advancing storm.

The Coast Guard issued the Lady D a stability letter in 1996, approving it to carry 25 passengers in protected waters. The letter said the decision was based on a 1992 stability test of a boat of similar size and shape, the Raven, that was “witnessed and evaluated” by the Coast Guard. An inspection of the Lady D was waived.

James Piper Bond, chief executive of the Living Classrooms Foundation, owner of Seaport Taxi before the water taxi operations ended in 2004, released a statement saying the lawsuit would be filed in U.S. District Court, The (Baltimore) Sun.

“The lawsuit focuses on the fact that the U.S. Coast Guard, in failing to follow its own procedures and policies, certified the carrying capacity of the Lady D at a grossly overstated number,” the statement said.

The lead plaintiffs are expected to be the Indemnity Insurance Co. of North America, of Philadelphia, and the Continental Insurance Co., of Chicago. A lawyer for the insurance companies, Robert B. Hopkins, refused to comment.

Coast Guard officials could not be reached for comment.

Although the Coast Guard had approved the Lady D pontoon boat to carry up to 25 people, those tests were based on a sister ship. Those tests contained errors and the Lady D was different enough from its sister ship that its stability was different, investigators from the National Transportation Safety Board concluded.

The Coast Guard regulations were also based on assumptions of an average passenger weight of 140 pounds, according to the documents. The Lady D, however, had an average passenger weight of 168 pounds when it flipped, making it 700 pounds overweight.

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