Court: Navy Not Liable for New Jersey Sailor Killed in ’07

May 10, 2011

A federal appeals court has ruled that the government doesn’t have to pay the family of a New Jersey sailor killed in a training exercise, even though a lower court found the Navy 80 percent responsible for the accident.

The 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Richmond, Va., ruling upheld a lower court’s decision in the case of former Garfield resident Freddy Porter Jr., whose family was awarded $1.25 million in a wrongful death suit in 2009.

Porter was on Virginia’s James River in 2007 when his 24-foot inflatable boat hit a tugboat pushing several barges at night. The trial judge found the tugboat owner, Birmingham, Ala.-based Vulcan Materials Co., negligent for not posting a lookout who might have prevented the collision.

He also faulted the Navy for operating “an unseaworthy vessel … with an incompetent crew” that committed several blunders that included traveling down the wrong side of the river. In addition, it was revealed that Porter’s two crew mates either didn’t know their craft was equipped with radar or didn’t know how to use it.

The trial court found the Navy 80 percent responsible and the tugboat’s owner 20 percent responsible. But under the legal principle of sovereign immunity, the Navy wasn’t required to pay.

Vulcan appealed, but the 4th Circuit’s decision upheld the lower court’s ruling.

An attorney for Vulcan didn’t return a phone message seeking comment.

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