Parties reach settlement in water taxi suit

5 killed when boat flipped in sudden storm in March

`A sense justice had been reached'

Plaintiffs' compensation is to remain confidential

October 14, 2004|By Matthew Dolan | Matthew Dolan,SUN STAFF

A lawsuit stemming from the March water taxi accident near the Inner Harbor that killed five people has been settled, attorneys and company officials confirmed yesterday.

Terms of the monetary settlement were not released because of the confidentiality restrictions in the agreement reached in federal court last week.

The negotiation Oct. 7 ends the litigation associated with the city's first fatal water taxi accident. All claimants were required to join the case this summer or forfeit their chances for compensation.

Claims on behalf of 24 of the 25 people on the boat that day were filed against the boat's owner, the nonprofit Living Classrooms Foundation; only the captain did not take legal action.

Lawyers refused to discuss any details of the settlement. Instead they stressed that the resolution, reached after an overnight, 18-hour session, avoided a lengthy trial and brought a measure of peace to families suffering with the tragedy's aftermath.

"You don't see a settlement of this magnitude unless there is a substantial risk that the defendants will eventually be held liable," said Stuart Salsbury, an attorney who represented several plaintiffs in the case.

Greg Pettibon, one of the survivors and a plaintiff, said the settlement was not a "life-changing amount of money" for him.

"I don't think anyone was jumping up and down from the money they got," said Pettibon, who attended the settlement conference. "There was a sense justice had been reached."

Living Classrooms officials expressed some relief that the claims against their Seaport Taxi company had been resolved relatively quickly. One plaintiff's attorney described the foundation's approach to the case as "compassionate."

The settlement was reached about seven months after the Lady D pontoon craft capsized during a sudden storm.

"Out of respect to the family - and the families have been at the forefront of this process - it's inappropriate for us to comment further" on the settlement, said James Piper Bond, Living Classrooms' president. Living Classrooms had liability insurance for its maritime operations, but officials declined to say how much.

The civil case started with a $17 million lawsuit filed in state court on behalf of three plaintiffs. Living Classrooms successfully petitioned to move the case to federal court, where the remaining plaintiffs joined with their claims against the foundation.

Marathon-style process

A marathon-style negotiation session to reach a settlement started Oct. 6 at 9 a.m. in the city's Clarence M. Mitchell Jr. Courthouse.

"It was very emotional at times for all of the parties," said Salsbury, who was joined by attorney Paul Bekman in representing 13 people who were survivors of the accident or relatives of those who died.

"There were a number of people who ... welled up at times because it was difficult to recall loved ones," he said.

The settlement talks ended the next day about 3:30 a.m. U.S. District Magistrate James K. Bredar led the mediation, which participants said soldiered on without meal breaks.

"The goal was to get to a settlement, and as long as things were moving in that direction, we didn't stop," said plaintiffs' attorney J. Stephen Simms.

Simms represented the Bentrem family during the proceeding. Sarah Bentrem, 9, remains in a coma caused by the accident that took the life of her 6-year-old brother, Daniel.

Investigation continues

On March 6, the 36-foot water taxi flipped during a sudden squall, tossing 23 passengers and two crew members into the 36-degree water. The boat was traveling from Fort McHenry to Fells Point.

The accident remains under investigation by federal officials.

"These investigations usually take about a year," Lauren Peduzzi, a spokeswoman for the National Transportation Safety Board, said yesterday.

But Pettibon, 24, of Bethesda said he knows who is to blame.

"I wouldn't have entered into the lawsuit if I felt there wasn't a high degree of institutional negligence," said Pettibon, who said he assisted others to safety after he was thrown from the Lady D.

`An act of God'

The boat owner's maintains that the accident was a freak occurrence.

"It was an act of God that took place on March 6," Bond said. "The foundation has great compassion toward the families, and our mission is founded and based on helping people and that's what we'll continue to do."

The Living Classrooms Foundation uses the proceeds from the taxi service to help fund its education programs, which include several job training programs for economically disadvantaged youth.

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