19th century maritime law could affect payout for Baltimore bridge disaster, expert says

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For the payout, this act says owners are allowed to wrap all the claims against them into a single case and ship it to a special Maritime court, where it's heard by a judge, but no jury.

Attorney John Hillsman has spent a legal lifetime learning about ships, boats, and nearly anything that floats. And he's seen his share of disasters, including representing Bay Area fisherman in the 2007 Cosco Busan oil spill on San Francisco Bay. But he says charting a legal course often begins with untangling an obscure maritime law that stretches back more than a century.

"They'll file that bond in federal court and say, here's the value of the vessel, please issue an injunction stopping all of the litigation against us and then establish what's known as a 'munition,' where the court says 'you claimants have until...' they'll pick a date -- 'July 1, 2024 to file any claims you may have against the owners of the Dali. This vessel in my courtroom.

"So the plaintiffs in that situation will be looking for other people to sue. They'll probably try to go after the Coast Guard for certifying the vessel as safe. They may well go after the state, seeking defects in the bridge design," he said. "This is going to create such a human cry that the owners are going to be very conscious of the optics of the situation once they get everybody in federal court by petitioning for a limitation. Then, I think, very quickly there'll be negotiations with the families to get them out of the picture as quickly as possible," Hillsman said.


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