Over 41 years ago, on May 9, 1980, one of the worst maritime disasters in Tampa Bay’s history occurred. A violent storm shook the waves so hard that a freighter, the Summit Venture, struck the Sunshine Skyway Bridge at 7:33 a.m. Several passenger cars, a pickup truck and a Greyhound bus toppled 150 feet into the water.
Only 1 man survived.
Originally built in 1954 with 2 lanes, the Sunshine Skyway Bridge was 15 miles long. It crossed Tampa Bay and ran from St. Petersburg to Bradenton. A second span parallel to the bridge was added later in 1971 to accommodate the increased traffic.
In 1980, the M/V Summit Venture, an empty phosphate freighter headed for Tampa to load cargo, struck a pier supporting the southbound span, causing the bridge to collapse.
The Sunshine Skyway Bridge accident brought years of litigation
Wrongful death claims were filed by the survivors of those who perished. A personal injury claim was also filed by the pickup driver, the only survivor.
Lastly, a claim was filed by Florida’s Department of Transportation for millions of dollars in damages to the bridge. The lawsuits asserted the accident was caused by the negligence of the ship’s owner and its crew.
The captain of the Summit Venture argued that it wasn’t his fault the ship crashed into the bridge. He claimed it was “an act of God,” meaning the storm caused the boating accident. Furthermore, he was relying on the special knowledge of the pilot who was directing the ship at the time of the accident.
Even though he was quite experienced, he’d only sailed through Tampa Bay once before. Maritime law requires ships to have pilots aboard because of their special knowledge of local conditions. Pilots should know the configuration of the channel, tides and local weather. This knowledge helps safely navigate the ship.
Ship’s captain is ultimately responsible for safe navigation
When the Summit was heading toward the bridge, there was only light rainfall. As conditions worsened, it continued toward the bridge instead of redirecting. Instead of leaving the channel and anchoring when the weather grew worse, the ship continued its course. Therefore, the “act of God” defense didn’t apply.
The judge concluded that the ship’s owner and crew were responsible.
Damages for the Sunshine Skyway Bridge disaster totaled millions of dollars
Several wrongful death claims were tried once the captain and crew were found responsible for the ship’s wreck. Damages were calculated, including those to the bridge, and all remaining claims were compromised and settled.
The cost for the bridge itself totaled $17 million. The non-jury trial lasted 2 weeks before the court ruled that the captain and crew were guilty. They determined the crew had committed many violations of the navigation rules. The ship’s owner was also denied the right to limit its liability to the value of the Summit Venture.
Boating accident lawyers are essential in the face of disaster
Boating is a favorite pastime of many Florida residents. It’s also widely used for commercial business. An experienced Tampa lawyer can help you navigate the murky litigation waters when there’s an accident. At Lorenzo & Lorenzo, we’ll help you fight for the best outcome possible.