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Friday, July 12, 2024 | Back issues
Courthouse News Service Courthouse News Service

After Bay Bridge Crash, Credential Out of Reach

SAN FRANCISCO (CN) - The man who crashed a cargo ship into the San Francisco Bay Bridge, causing one of the worst oil spills in the bay's recent history, cannot renew his Merchant Mariner Credential, a federal judge ruled.

John Cota was the pilot of the container chip Cosco Busan on Nov. 7, 2007, when it allided with the fenders on the Bay Bridge, tearing a hole in the ship and spilling more than 53,000 gallons of fuel oil into the bay. The National Transportation Safety Board found Cota's "degraded cognitive performance from his use of impairing prescription medications" to be the cause of the accident, though other factors contributed, including inadequate crew training and a failure by the Coast Guard to warn Cota by radio.

Officials say the spill killed at least 2,000 migratory birds, including endangered brown pelicans, marbled murrelets and Western grebes, while also disrupting the fishing industry. In 2011, the Cosco Busan's owner, Regal Stone Ltd., and its operator, Fleet Management Ltd., both of Hong Kong, agreed to pay $44 million to settle the civil case.

Cota pleaded guilty to criminal misdemeanor charges for oil pollution and served 10 months in federal prison, one year of supervised release and 200 hours of community service. In December 2007, the Coast Guard offered Cota, who receives an annual pension of $228,864, to either take a suspension and face a revocation proceeding with a charge of physical incompetence or voluntarily give up his credentials with the Coast Guard. Before those credentials can be renewed, the Coast Guard makes a "safety and suitability" determination.

Cota agreed to give up his license and it expired in 2010. He applied to get his license back in 2011, within one year of its expiration, as required. In his cover letter to his application, Cota argued that the plea to the misdemeanor charges was not evidence of him being "unable to perform his required duties due to professional or physical incompetence ... and is not material to his license's return and renewal."

The Coast Guard disagreed, however, and found Cota not "safe and suitable" because of his medical conditions that require the prescriptions. The decision also noted Cota's involvement in the Bay Bridge accident as well as the grounding of another ship in 2006.

Renewing Cota's credentials presented a threat to the safety of life or property, "is detrimental to good discipline, and is not in the best interests of the United States," the commandant of the Coast Guard found.

The commandant also noted that Cota had not been fully honest in all of his responses on the application.

Cota filed suit after losing his administrative appeal. In its motion to dismiss, the Coast Guard said the court lacks jurisdiction to consider an issue of agency discretion.

U.S. District Court Judge Jeffrey White disagreed Monday that such decisions were beyond judicial review, but he nevertheless dismissed the case after finding no evidence that the Coast Guard's decision was arbitrary, capricious or abusive.

Rather than dispute any of the facts or reasons why his license was not renewed, Cota "makes a procedural argument that the commandant exceeded the scope of the appeal by considering his professional qualifications and safety and suitability, instead of merely his medical evaluation," White wrote. "Cota argues that the Coast Guard 'deviat[ed] from its own regulations and policies in processing Cota's renewal application,' and the Commandant exceeded the scope of Cota's appeal 'by unexpectedly re-assessing Cota's professional qualifications and safety and suitability, thereby usurping the NMC's functions.' However, Cota failed to allege or argue what the specific regulations and policies are that the Defendants purportedly violated."

Cota's attorney, John Meadows, said in an interview that Cota might appeal to the 9th Circuit, but that the matter is under review with his client.

"That's the best I can say right now," Meadows said.

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