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Tugboat Owner Snared for $2M Damage Claim

(CN) - A tugboat company must pay the United States $2.5 million for severe damage one of its crews caused to the Navy's degaussing range in Norfolk harbor, a federal judge ruled.

The Katie G. McAllister is a tugboat owned by McAllister Towing of Virginia and captained by Richard Hinson, who has more than 30 years experience in the towing industry.

The United States Navy's degaussing range has been located in the Norfolk harbor near Sewell's Point since 1989. The degaussing range measures the magnetism of the Navy's ships as part of its mine counter-measures. It consists of a series of sensors located on the floor of the harbor, linked by cables.

In July 2010, the Katie G. was towing a barge, the Columbia Elizabeth, through the Norfolk Entrance Channel in order to reach the Atlantic Ocean.

As the Katie G. approached the degaussing range, it released 1,300 feet of tow wire, causing the wire to sag below the water, all the way to the channel floor where it snagged an unknown object and dragged it through the range's cables.

The unknown object caused a drag mark on the harbor floor that was approximately 700 feet long, five feet wide, and 6 inches deep. After the Katie G. passed, 21 of the Range's 26 sensors instantly stopped working.

The United States calculated that it spent $3.5 million to repair the range.

United States District Judge Raymond Jackson denied McAllister's claim for exoneration from liability, finding that "the Katie G. crew's negligent lengthening of the tow wire was the sole proximate cause of the damage to the degaussing range on July 13, 2010."

The judge ordered McAllister to pay damages of $2.52 million, which is the fair market value of the Katie G.

"The Katie G. is presumed to be negligent as a moving vessel which allided with the degaussing range, a stationary object of which the Katie G. crew was aware. The degaussing range has existed in the Norfolk Harbor Reach Channel Entrance since 1990, and it is reflected on several charts. The Katie G. navigated through the degaussing range at least one hundred times. Moreover, the Katie G. crew knew (or should have known) about the ongoing construction to the range, which put the crew on notice to exercise extreme caution when traversing the range on July 13, 2010," Jackson said.

The judge made his determination after finding the United States' witnesses more credible. He said that "while Captain Hinson testified that he was aware of the winds and surge that day and of the 'tight' channel, which required extra caution on the part of his crew, the court finds that the crew failed to heed these hazards."

However, Jackson agreed to limit McAllister's liability to the value of the Katie G., because "McAllister had no knowledge of the negligence that caused the incident."

"This one-time error on the part of Captain Hinson and his crew does not warrant a denial of limitation of liability for McAllister," he concluded.

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