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Spirit of Baltimore passengers sue after Coast Guard finds captain dozed before crash

The Spirit of Baltimore, a passenger vessel, sustained superficial damage after colliding with the pier at Henderson Wharf Marina in Baltimore Sunday, Aug. 28, 2016.

TOM DAVAN/U.S. COAST GUARD

By TIM PRUDENTE | The Baltimore Sun | Published: March 11, 2017

Nearly 30 passengers are suing Spirit Cruises LLC after a company ship crashed into a Fells Point pier last August during a midnight party outing.

Maurice and Tonya Franklin of Baltimore County, who are among those suing, are seeking $1 million.

The force of the Spirit of Baltimore's crash threw Maurice Franklin into a glass wall and rocked his wife from her seat, their attorneys wrote in a federal court lawsuit.

Other passengers contend that they suffered injuries to their necks, backs and knees, according to court records.

Coast Guard investigators said the captain dozed off before the 119-foot vessel veered off course and splintered a floating pier at Henderson's Wharf Marina.

"I immediately started to panic as I didn't know if the ship had been damaged and was going to sink," Felicia Morris, a passenger from Virginia, wrote in her lawsuit. "I couldn't swim and there were no life vests in sight nor were any handed out by staff or crew."

Twenty-eight people have filed claims, ranging from $5,000 to $1 million, against Spirit Cruises before a deadline last month set by U.S. District Judge Ellen L. Hollander.

Under U.S. maritime law, a company may request the courts set a deadline for people to bring claims and to limit the total payout, according to the value of the ship. Hollander set a deadline of Feb. 15 and a limit of $1.8 million.

About 400 people boarded the Spirit of Baltimore on Aug. 28 for a night of drinking and dancing. The guests had come from as far as New Jersey for the "All Linen Affair," a midnight-to-3 a.m. cruise. The ship was returning to its berth when it struck the pier around 2:30 a.m and continued for about a mile to the dock. Two passengers were hospitalized with chest and back pain.

The captain, who has not been identified, was fired within 24 hours, said Dan Leaman, general manager for Spirit Cruises. He called the captain's conduct "completely unacceptable" in a statement issued Thursday.

"The safety of our guests, communities and shipmates continues to be our highest priority as evidenced by the exceptional safety record the company has compiled for more than 30 years," Leaman said in the statement. "We remain committed to safety and continue to reinforce safety policies and procedures with all of our shipmates."

An attorney for Spirit Cruises declined to comment on the case.

Coast Guard investigators said the captain had worked three days on his own boat and was feeling tired when the midnight cruise departed.

At 2 a.m., investigators said, the mate left the bridge to help with a drunken passenger and the captain dozed off. The cruise ship hit two moored recreational boats and caused about $100,000 in damage to the wharf, investigators said.

The captain told investigators he didn't know if the noise or impact woke him. But he swung the ship out, stopped and assessed the damage. There was a gash in the side of the ship.

Since the crash, Spirit Cruises officials have discussed the risk of fatigue with captains. Those feeling sleepy are now required to have a mate ride in the bridge, remain standing and notify a supervisor.

A trial has not been scheduled for the lawsuits.

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©2017 The Baltimore Sun
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Damage sustained to the pier after the passenger vessel Spirit of Baltimore struck the pier on Aug. 28, 2016.
TOM DAVAN/U.S. COAST GUARD

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