(CN) – A double-pontoon boat that capsized in Baltimore Harbor, killing five people, underwent sufficient safety testing by the government, the 4th Circuit ruled. The owners and insurers of Lady D said the government’s negligence in testing allowed the boat to be over capacity at the time of the accident.
Before the accident, the Coast Guard certified the boat as safe for 25 passengers, but later discovered it could only safely carry 15. The boat held 23 passengers and two crew members when it capsized on March 6, 2004, in a wind storm. Built in 1995, the 36-foot long pontoon weighed two tons.
During certification, the Coast Guard waived testing for Lady D, using
1992 stability proof test results from a sister ship, the Fells Point Princess. The Fells Point Princess inspector later admitted that he “inadvertently” used a weight-shift method for another type of ship, making his stability calculations inaccurate.
The Coast Guard’s testing error falls under the discretionary function exception to waivers of sovereign immunity, the Virginia-based federal appeals court ruled. In addition, a court must assume that the government agent’s actions were grounded in policy when exercising that discretion, Judge Hamilton wrote.
Lady D‘s owners and insurers did not prove that the Coast Guard’s certification of Lady D was not grounded in public policy, the court ruled. It concluded that the plaintiffs’ testing-error argument held no water.
The Marine Safety Manual used to conduct testing “did not set forth a mandatory testing methodology,” leaving the procedure up to the Coast Guard inspector, the court concluded.
The 4th Circuit affirmed dismissal of the case.