The deadly blaze aboard the car carrier Grande Costa D’Avorio in Port Newark, New Jersey, in July was caused by a Ports America-owned Jeep Wrangler being used to load non-working vehicles, shipowner Grimaldi Deep Sea claimed in a legal filing on Wednesday.
The fire broke out during loading operations on July 5 and was extinguished on July 11. Two Newark firefighters, Augusto Acabou and Wayne Brooks Jr., died during the initial firefighting operations.
The ship was loaded with more than 1,200 vehicles as well as 157 containers and was destined for West Africa when the fire broke out.
Port Newark is leased and operated by Ports America. The Grand Costa D’Avorio was at a berth operated by stevedore American Marine Services (AMS), Grimaldi said in Wednesday’s court filing. “AMS was loading used vehicle cargoes aboard the vessel … and used a 2007 Jeep Wrangler to push non-running vehicles aboard.”
According to Grimaldi, Ports America owned the Jeep Wrangler “and was responsible for its maintenance, repair and safe operational condition.” It said that “AMS, through its employees, operated the Jeep Wrangler and had certain maintenance and repair responsibilities for its safe operations.”
The shipowner said that “a fire started from the underside of the Jeep Wrangler while it was being driven by an AMS employee and pushing a non-running Toyota Venza from the terminal to Deck 10 on the vessel.
“The fire quickly enveloped the Jeep Wrangler and generated thick black smoke and intense heat. The AMS drivers and lashers immediately left the vessel.” (A lasher is a stevedore that secures and unlashes cargo.)
According to Grimaldi, the ship’s crew members attempted to extinguish the fire but it quickly spread and intensified. Local firefighters arrived to fight the blaze. Acabou and Brooks were reported missing and “the priority of operations … changed from firefighting to search and rescue.”
After the two missing firefighters were recovered, Newark firefighters left the ship, Grimaldi said. The ship’s crew continued their own efforts until the morning of July 6. By that time, the fire had spread to other decks and the captain ordered the crew to leave the vessel.
Grimaldi seeks $15.9M liability cap
Grimaldi’s account of the fire’s cause was included in a limitation of liability filing. Under the Limitation of Liability Act, a shipowner may limit its liability to the value of the vessel and its pending freight income, with that value determined immediately following the accident.
Grimaldi blamed the casualty on the Jeep Wrangler, maintaining that the injuries, deaths and property loss were not caused by any negligence on its part. (FreightWaves has sought comment from Ports America on the statements made by Grimaldi in its court filing but has yet to receive a reply.)
Nonetheless, Grimaldi “believes civil actions and claims will be asserted against it in an amount exceeding the total amount for which Grimaldi may be legally responsible for pursuant to the Limitation [of Liability] Act.”
The shipowner said that legal discovery actions have been commenced by Ports America, AMS, the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, and the estates of the two deceased firefighters.
A formal claim has already been made by the estates of Acabou and Brooks and Grimaldi has posted a tort lien security of $20 million in the form of a letter of undertaking.
In Wednesday’s court filing, Grimaldi asked for that amount to be replaced by supplemental security of $19,837,440 for death and injury claims, calculated based upon a formula in the Limitation of Liability Act ($420 per ton multiplied by the ship’s gross registered tonnage of 47,232).
Grimaldi calculated that the value of the vessel and pending freight is $15.9 million and is seeking court approval of that assessment.
Grimaldi said the vessel was valued at $55 million prior to the accident. It estimated the cost of repairs at $26 million, the cost for towage to a repair yard in the Mediterranean region at $3 million and its share of salvage cost at $11 million, bringing the present value of the ship down to $15 million. It estimated the income from freight for undamaged vehicles to be $900,000, bringing Grimaldi’s assessment of the liability cap to $15.9 million.
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