The United States Constitution gives jurisdiction to United States federal courts over maritime cases—matters involving ships or shipping.
The Sunshine Skyway Bridge Disaster
The first Sunshine Skyway bridge span opened in 1954 with two lanes, one in each direction. The 15 mile long crossing of Tampa Bay ran from St. Petersburg to Bradenton. Spurred by increasing traffic, a second parallel span was added in 1971. The east span carried traffic northbound, and the west span carried traffic southbound, each with two lanes.
On the morning of May 9, 1980, during a violent rainsquall, the M/V Summit Venture, an empty phosphate freighter headed for Tampa to load cargo, struck a pier supporting the southbound span, and 1261 feet of the bridge fell into Tampa Bay. Six automobiles and a Greyhound bus fell 150 feet to the water, and 35 people lost their lives. A pickup truck also fell from the bridge but bounced off the ship on the way down, breaking the fall.
The driver, who was alone, survived.
The Sunshine Skyway Bridge accident is considered one of the worst bridge disasters in history.
In the years of litigation that followed, the ship owner faced claims for wrongful death by the survivors of those who perished, a personal injury claim by the pickup driver, and a claim by the State of Florida, Department of Transportation, for millions of dollars for damage to the bridge. The lawsuits asserted the accident was caused by the negligence of the ship’s owner and its crew.
The M/V Summit Venture before (left) and after (right) the accident
Ordered, Adjudged and Decreed
The owner of the Summit Venture argued first that it was not at fault because the collision was caused by an act of God (i.e., the violent storm).
Next, the ship owner argued it was not at fault because the ship was directed by a Tampa Bay deputy pilot at the time of the accident.
However, the judge concluded that the ship’s owner and crew were responsible and that the act of God defense did not apply because the ship could have left the channel and anchored when the weather deteriorated.
(left to right) Lawyer Dave Hanlon was co-counsel for the state of Florida for the claim for damage to the bridge; Roger Vaughan was one
of the lead lawyers for the families of the deceased and the injury claimant; lawyer Carl Nelson served as co-counsel for the ship owner.
Damage trials followed where judgments were entered against the ship owner in various amounts.