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Federal judge sides with KYTC concerning jurisdiction for lawsuit

Staff report

A federal judge has agreed with the Kentucky Transportation Cabinet that a lawsuit against employees of Foss Maritime Co. should be heard in a state circuit court.

"State courts â ¦ remain competent to hear maritime causes of action so long as the defendant is a person, rather than a vessel," the ruling said.

KYTC has sued seven current or former employees for their part in the crash of the Delta Mariner, a cargo vessel owned by Foss Maritime, into the Eggner's Ferry Bridge on Kentucky Lake on Jan. 26, 2012.

A 322-foot span of the bridge was demolished and had to be replaced. The bridge was out for four months.

The transportation cabinet seeks to recover more than $7 million in damages on behalf of Kentucky taxpayers.

The cabinet filed the lawsuit in Marshall Circuit Court and requested a jury trial. Foss Maritime got the case removed to U.S. District Court.

In the ruling Thursday, U.S. District Court Judge Thomas B. Russell noted the cabinet's desire for a jury trial.

"Were this case to be removed pursuant to the court's original admiralty jurisdiction, however, no such trial would be available: admiralty cases do not carry with them the right to a jury trial," the ruling said.

The cabinet also argued that removal of the case to federal court violated the 11th Amendment to both the U.S. and Kentucky constitutions, precluding states from being brought into federal court without a waiver of immunity.

Russell agreed that the "general maritime nature" of a case does not, by itself, justify its removal to federal court.

The cabinet's lawsuit said the crew of the ship ignored repeated warnings from the U.S. Coast Guard and another vessel on the river that day about the navigation lights being out on the bridge. Foss Maritime is based in Seattle, Wash.

The National Transportation Safety Board concluded that the missed and ignored warnings were part of a series of errors that led to the cargo ship striking the bridge that carries traffic from near Aurora to Land Between the Lakes National Recreation Area in western Kentucky.

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