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NORFOLK, VA – July 5, 2024 - In This Norfolk law firm represented Maryland after container ship destroyed Key Bridge The Virginian-Pilot features the story of the work done by Maritime and Admiralty Law Section attorneys and Willcox Savage Members, Christopher A. Abel and David H. Sump while serving as emergency outside counsel to the Office of the Attorney General in Maryland following the collapse of the Francis Scott Key Bridge following a collision with container ship MV Dali on March 26, 2024. See full article.

[EXCERPT]  When the container ship Dali destroyed the Francis Scott Key Bridge in Baltimore on March 26, the bridge’s owner — the state of Maryland — needed emergency legal representation.

The next day, state officials asked a Hampton Roads law firm to help out.

Chris Abel and David Sump — maritime attorneys with the Norfolk law firm Willcox & Savage — had been representing Maryland for more than a year in the case of a barge that crashed into a state-owned bridge on Maryland’s Eastern Shore.

The Dali’s crash into Baltimore’s Key Bridge was far more spectacular in scale — with exponentially more money at stake. But “at a very basic level,” Abel said, both accidents involved vessels crashing into state bridges, with the same 19th century maritime law at issue.

The Norfolk law partners — former Coast Guard officers who met at the Coast Guard Academy in 1975 — quickly agreed to take on the Maryland work.

“It’s always exciting where you read about something in the paper and then the phone rings,” Abel said. “Everyone in America, or probably in the world, knew that this tragedy happened when they woke up the morning of March 26. The fact that within a day or so we were getting a call and an opportunity to have a role, that was kind of exciting.”

Starting in early April and running through most of May, Abel, 66, of York County, and Sump, 67, of Chesapeake — together with a younger Willcox & Savage lawyer named Michael Collett — spent “hundreds” of hours representing Maryland in the Key Bridge case.

“Our job in the early going was to represent the state’s interest,” Abel said. “To advise the state of its legal rights and options.”

According to a preliminary report from the National Transportation Safety Board, a crewman on the Dali accidentally tripped an electrical circuit breaker on the ship on March 26 — causing the 984-foot container ship to lose power and crash into the Key Bridge’s support structure.

Only five days after the bridge’s collapse, the Dali’s owner and operator — Singapore-based Grace Ocean Private Ltd. and the Synergy Marine Group — filed a petition in U.S. District Court in Baltimore to limit their legal exposure.

They did so under the Shipowner’s Limitation of Liability Act, an 1851 law that caps a ship owner’s liability from a disaster to the total value of the ship and its cargo after the accident.

If a ship is destroyed, for example, the ship owner would have no liability at all. In its court filing in the Key Bridge case, Grace and Synergy pegged the value of the ship at $90 million before the collision and $43 million afterward.

“If you’re Grace Ocean and if you’re Synergy, you’re certainly hoping that you get to make that stick, because their exposure would never be greater than that $43 million,” Abel said. “And obviously you’ve got a bunch of folks fighting for it.”

But Maryland and other claimants are expected to challenge Grace Ocean’s and Synergy’s right to limit its liability under the 1851 law...



ABOUT Christopher A. Abel

Chris leads the firm’s Maritime Section. His work in the realm of admiralty and maritime law has involved work in virtually every aspect of commercial life along the waterfront and well out to sea, to include serving as lead counsel for numerous complex marine casualty and environmental litigation cases, handling a wide variety of cargo, terminal, marina, shipyard, and maritime contract transactions and disputes, resolving Coast Guard regulatory and mariner licensure issues, working the spectrum of vessel charter, documentation, marine insurance, and fleet operation challenges, addressing a number of unique marine employment issues, and representing a range of clients in various vessel arrest, attachment and limitation of liability actions. Prior to entering private law practice in 1995, Chris served for sixteen years as a commissioned officer and law specialist in the United States Coast Guard, eventually reaching the rank of Commander. 


ABOUT David H. Sump

David represents clients on a wide variety of maritime interests, including admiralty and maritime law and maritime pollution law. He is acknowledged as one of the leading attorneys in marine pollution and riparian rights and is experienced in state and federal procurement/contract claims and protests. David has represented a variety of maritime clients in civilian practice for the past 20 years, concentrating in the area of prosecution and defense of various property damage claims, vessel collision and grounding claims, marine personal injury and wrongful death claims, as well as addressing issues involving maritime construction and marine contracts. Prior to entering private practice, David served for fourteen years as a commissioned officer and law specialist in the United States Coast Guard, eventually reaching the rank of Lieutenant Commander.

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