Cosco Busan Crash Still Playing Out in Court

     SAN FRANCISCO (CN) - The Hong Kong companies behind the container ship Cosco Busan, which spilled 53,000 gallons of oil into San Francisco Bay, sued a pharmacy chain allegedly frequented by the ship's pilot.
     In a Superior Court complaint, Regal Stone Limited and Fleet Management Ltd., owner and operator of the Cosco Busan, claim Longs Drug Stores' negligence led the ship's impaired captain, John Cota, to crash the vessel in thick fog on Nov. 7, 2007.
     Cota steered the 900-foot ship into a San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge support tower, slashing the vessel's hull and dumping bunker fuel from its ruptured tanks.
     According to the National Transportation Safety Board, Cota, then 59, was unable to read the ship's radar or navigation charts correctly due to a cocktail of prescription drugs.
     The NTSB "determined that a probable cause of the incident was 'the pilot's degraded cognitive performance from his use of impairing prescription medications,'" according to the complaint.
     Regal Stone, the ship's owner, and Fleet Management, as manager, reached a $44.4 million civil settlement in September 2011, after several lawsuits from federal and state government agencies. Fleet was fined $10 million for falsifying the ship's records after the crash.
     Regal and Fleet suedLongs for negligence in state court in 2011. In March this year, a federal judge refusedto remand that complaint and removed it to Federal Court, even though Longs was never served with the lawsuit.
     The plaintiffs said they never served Longs because they were waiting for the state court to rule on their motion to seal and to issue guidance on how to treat Cota's medical information.
     According to the most recent complaint, Cota frequented Longs Drugs in Petaluma for 2 years before to the incident. CVS Caremark bought Longs and rebranded its stores as CVS.
     Cota's medical information is not specified in the complaint.
     "Many of the drugs that Cota was taking were synergistic when taken at the same time and potentiated the central nervous system depressive effects of each other," the new complaint states. "The number and types of these drugs that Cota was taking together was obviously medically inappropriate and dangerous. ...
     "The combination and number of drugs that Cota was receiving from Longs at the same time alerted, or should have alerted, Longs to the risk that Cota's prescription drug use rendered him a danger to himself and the public if he operated an automobile or heavy machinery such as a commercial vessel. ...
     "Defendants knew or should have know that Cota could not perform the duties of a pilot while taking the combination of drugs that Longs was dispensing to him," the complaint states.
     A Longs pharmacist sent an email to the U.S. Coast Guard immediately after the crash, according to the complaint. "Check John Cota for prescription drugs. I can't say more than that," the unidentified pharmacist wrote, according to the complaint.
     Regal and Fleet claim that Longs' pharmacists breached acceptable standards of care in their dealings with Cota.
     "Consistent with the findings of the California Legislature, pharmacists now play an important and vital role in counseling patients, reducing medication errors, and providing assistance with clinical disease management programs," the complaint states.
     Officials estimated that 6,000 birds, including endangered brown pelicans, marbled murrelets and Western grebes, died as a result of the Cosco Busan spill.
     Cota, a 26-year marine pilot, was sentenced to 10 months in prison, 1 year of supervised release and 200 hours of community service.
     Cleanup, response, natural resource damage assessment and litigation costs have yet to be determined, but Longs should be held liable for the charges, the plaintiffs say.
     Defendants include Maryland-based Longs Drug Stores, Longs Drug Stores California LLC, CVS Caremark Corporation and three pharmacists.
     The plaintiffs seek punitive damages, restitution and attorneys' fees for pharmacist's negligence, unfair business practices and violation of the California Water Code.
     They are represented by Samuel Keesal with Keesal Young & Logan of Long Beach.