NewsKey Bridge Collapse


Dali crew departure this week is likely, maritime attorney says

Posted at 6:10 PM, Jun 19, 2024

BALTIMORE — After remaining on board for close to three months, it’s likely that eight of the crew members for the Dali, the ship that crashed into the Key Bridge on March 26, will leave Baltimore tomorrow and go home.

On Tuesday, attorneys representing the city in it’s lawsuit against the Dali’s owner and manager - Grace Ocean and Synergy Marine, respectively - asked a federal judge to hold an emergency hearing.

The attorneys had just learned earlier that day, through an email with the Dali crew’s legal team, that some of the crew members had been cleared by the Coast Guard and the Department of Justice to leave the U.S. as soon as Thursday, June 20. Replacements would be arranged, in order to continue maintaining the ship while it’s docked at Seagirt Marine Terminal. Since the collapse, none of the crew members have been able to even disembark the ship, even temporarily.

Adam Levitt, one of the attorneys for the city, told the judge that a a Thursday departure would interfere with the ongoing lawsuit: “The crew consist entirely of foreign national who, of course, have critical knowledge and information about the events giving rise to this litigation. If they are permitted to leave the United States, Claimants may never have the opportunity to question or depose them."

Court documents show that the city’s attorneys had been promised in mid-April by the crew’s counsel that they “fully intend for all crew members to remain aboard the vessel for the foreseeable future, and that, in the event it becomes necessary for a crew member to leave the vessel that we will give everyone as much notice as possible so that arrangements can be made to preserve their testimony.”

With the email coming on June 18 alerting the city of some of the crew’s pending departure, and Juneteenth being a federal holiday, Levitt argues his team was not given enough notice.

Counsel for the Dali say the crew will likely be advised to ‘plead the fifth' if called to depose anyway.

“Under the circumstances, we see no purpose in convening depositions on an emergency basis simply to accomplish this formality,” writes Williamm Bennett III, one of the attorneys for the crew.

To settle the issue, Judge James Bredar scheduled a hearing for 10 a.m. Thursday, but warned that the city failed to cite any authority that supports their request for the crew to continue to be detained, noting that doing so could violate their liberties.

Allen Black is a maritime attorney for D.C.-based Mills Black LLP, an adjunct professor of maritime law at the University of Maryland Law School and University of Baltimore Law School. He’s also a former Coast Guard seagoing officer and attorney, and is the author of Maritime Law Answer Book.

In an interview with WMAR-2 News’ Elizabeth Worthington on Wednesday, Black predicted the eight cleared crew members would go home on Thursday.

"They have a right to depart, unless they fall within one of these criteria that they’re required [to stay] for the interest of justice. But that applies to a criminal proceeding, not a civil case. [..] If someone is a witness in an agency investigation or a witness in a criminal matter, there’s a process for denying them the ability to depart. If an immigration officer exercises that authority, there’s a process so that the person gets a right to a hearing about why they should be allowed to leave."

The city’s lawsuit is a civil case. In the FBI’s criminal investigation, the relevant authorities have cleared those eight crew members to leave.

"The people who want to leave are not the engineers," Black said. "It was the A-Bs, which is able-seamen. So that’s the guy who stands watch on deck. And the cook. They want to go home,” Black said.

If the the crew does depart, the city’s lawyers will still have an opportunity to question them.

"We’ve done cases with foreign seafarers before, where they’re allowed to go home, and some elect to come back to give a deposition or testify in court. Others can do a virtual deposition. It’s not like once they leave, they’re completely unavailable. I think that the point the city was making was that once they leave, it becomes more difficult to track them down, and that’s certainly true but these are crew members; they’re credentialed people. They have addresses. They have crewing offices that they work with. So it’s not impossible to track them down,” Black told WMAR-2 News.

If you’re thinking, it’s been almost three months, why haven’t the attorneys completed, or at least scheduled, their depositions by now? Black says: “Although it’s been three months, it’s still early days from an investigation standpoint. The NTSB, Coast Guard, haven’t finished what they’re doing, and so I think it would be a bit of a challenge to do a deposition of them at this point."

Black doesn’t think anyone will be ready to depose the crew for months. Back in April, a federal judge gave a deadline for all claims related to the bridge collapse - September 24. So more lawyers with more questions could be on deck. And Black predicts, the discovery, or fact-finding and evidence-gathering process, will likely take legal teams through February 2025 to complete. That’s a long time to detain them.

As for the remaining 13 crew members who have not been cleared to leave, it’s unclear when or if they’ll be granted shore leave - temporary access to land. WMAR-2 News has been covering seafarer advocacy group’s efforts to secure shore passes for the crew since the week after the collapse. Andrew Middleton, the head of Apostleship of the Seas, took some of the crew members shopping for basic necessities a couple of days before the Dali set sail on its ill-fated journey. They would have needed shore passes to disembark on American soil. But those passes are only good for about a month. Middleton explained a possible snag in the process of getting those renewed.

"Once they expire, you need to sail into international waters and then come back and be re-issued a shore pass," he said.

For more on the criminal charges the FBI may be looking into, and how the insurance litigation could play out, click here.

We still don't know how much longer those crew members will have to stay in the U.S.

The Dali is supposed to go to Norfolk, Virginia soon for repairs.