Friday, Jan, 8–Fisherman Files Lawsuit Over Grounded Boat

OCEAN CITY – The owner of a commercial scallop boat that became grounded off the coast of the resort in September 2006 and eventually slammed into the Ocean City Fishing Pier, causing considerable damage to the historic structure, is suing the town of Ocean City and the United States Coast Guard for allegedly failing to assist in the salvage of the vessel before its ultimate demise.

In the early morning hours on Sept. 11, 2006, the fishing boat “Mighty Duck,” a 42-foot Novi scallop boat operating out of the commercial harbor in West Ocean City, ran aground in storm-tossed seas just off the coast of the resort. It was left at the mercy of the seas, which were churning with high winds and rough surf before it eventually slammed into the historic pier, causing pilings to fail and deck boards to buckle to the tune of about $25,000 in damages.

The “Mighty Duck” remained wedged under the pier for much of the day before town workers were able to secure it with lines from the beach and eventually pull it from the ocean using a complex block and tackle system and several vehicles. The “Mighty Duck,” ravaged by the stormy seas and the later effort to pull it from the water, was ultimately dismantled on the beach and removed by dump truck in several large pieces.

Exactly three years to the day of the incident, the boat owner, Douglas Kelly, of Ocean City, filed a civil suit in federal court alleging negligence on the part of the town of Ocean City and the Coast Guard for the ultimate demise of the “Mighty Duck.” The suit, filed on Sept. 11, 2009, is seeking $250,000 in damaged from each of the defendants in the case.

Most of the allegations in the 10-page complaint revolve around the actions of the defendants in the hours after the vessel first ran aground. According to the complaint, the Coast Guard responded to the grounded vessel around 2:40 a.m. and subjected the captain to a breathalyzer test, which yielded no presence of alcohol, according to the complaint. However, with the captain no longer aboard, the vessel continued to founder in the heavy surf and ultimately slammed into the pier.

“By compelling the captain to abandon the vessel, and making it impossible for him to further assist with the salvage of the vessel or to mitigate further harm to the vessel, the Coast Guard did not render aid in accordance with the standards of acceptable seamanship,” the complaint reads. “By waiting from 2:40 a.m. to approximately 10 a.m. to alert the state Department of Natural Resources Police of the grounding of the vessel, particularly where the defendant Coast Guard was not willing to offer additional salvage or simple towage during that period of time or thereafter, the Coast Guard breached the duty owed to the plaintiff.”

The Ocean City Police Department was notified and responded to the scene to work in conjunction with the Coast Guard from the land, according to the complaint, which is why the town of Ocean City is listed as a defendant. According to the complaint, OCPD officers assured Coast Guard officials they would “keep an eye on the vessel as they patrolled the Boardwalk in the early morning hours.” The Coast Guard left the area of the grounded vessel and did not return until roughly 10 a.m., by which time the “Mighty Duck” was being slammed into the pier by the surf.

“Ocean City’s statements, made to the captain and Kelly that it would ‘keep an eye’ on the vessel induced reliance that Ocean City was in control of the salvage operation,” the complaint reads. “Ocean City, by failing to secure the vessel before it caused damage to the Ocean City Fishing Pier, breached the duty it owed the plaintiff.”

A similar charge of negligence by the Coast Guard is included in the lawsuit, which suggests the federal agency responded in a timely manner to the grounded vessel, but did not take any action to render assistance to the vessel, instead relying on the town of Ocean City and its police and public works departments to deal with the salvage operation.

“Despite being the first agency to respond to the scene of the grounding, the Coast Guard did not otherwise render salvage or simple towage assistance even though it was clear that there was a very strong possibility that the vessel would impact the Ocean City Fishing Pier, further endangering lives and property,” the complaint reads. “By failing to further assist with the salvage or simple towage of the vessel and mitigate any additional harm to persons or property, the Coast Guard did not render aid in accordance with the standards of acceptable seamanship, thus breaching the duty owed to the plaintiff.”

Eventually, the public works department and the fire department used bulldozers and tow lines to pull the vessel from underneath the pier so it no longer impacted the pilings. By the time the vessel had been pulled from under the pier, all of the hatches had been washed away and the “Mighty Duck” had become full of water and sand.

According to the suit, the value of the vessel and the gear lost as a result of the incident was $161,000. The estimated cost of repairing the pier came in at $25,000, while the cost of rendering aid by the Ocean City Public Works and Fire Departments cost about $13,000. The suit is seeking a combined $250,000 from the defendants in the case.