Ship Wrecked

A Houston firm certified the oil tanker Prestige as good to go. It broke apart in the Atlantic, causing the worst environmental disaster in Spanish history.

The injuries that Toubaniaris suffered ended his career as a mariner. He was hospitalized in Italy for 16 days and in Athens for another six months. The force of the ship's explosion broke one of his eardrums, leaving him with a condition that causes him to hear continuous noise and become dizzy when he makes sudden movements. He developed a liver disease from ingesting the oil. And he suffers recurring nightmares and paranoia. Compared to many crew members -- five of whom died -- he was lucky.

The Italian government sued the ship's owners for manslaughter, but Toubaniaris took a different course and went after ABS. In a 1993 lawsuit against the company in Houston, he accused ABS of performing a negligent inspection. A Houston lawyer, Anastassios "Tasso" Triantaphylis, wrangled with ABS attorneys for nearly a decade before accepting a confidential out-of-court settlement shortly before the case was to go to trial. The decision was easy.

"The only witness accessible was my client, the ship was on the bottom of the sea, and the studies made on the causes of the wreck were done by an Italian bureaucracy," he explained. The trial would have been an exhausting international marathon, a problem in almost any lawsuit involving a distant shipwreck, and a big reason why, in court, ABS can seem unassailable.

Friendswood attorney Anthony Buzbee is suing ABS for $300 million on behalf of the oil-drenched Basque region.
Daniel Kramer
Friendswood attorney Anthony Buzbee is suing ABS for $300 million on behalf of the oil-drenched Basque region.
Detailed model ships in ABS's global headquarters convey the company's expertise.
Detailed model ships in ABS's global headquarters convey the company's expertise.

The difficulty of suing ABS hasn't stopped other disgruntled ship owners and mariners from directing their guns at the company. ABS has been taken to court over disasters ranging from a split cargo ship to an impaled cruise liner to an exploding offshore oil rig. Many suits failed. But others established major shortcomings in ABS's performance and set precedents that increasingly are being used to hold the company accountable.

In 1983 ABS surveyed the M/V Thomas K cargo ship in Port Arthur, Texas. The vessel was due that year for a major out-of-water inspection, but instead of dry-docking the ship to check the hull, ABS divers inspected her underwater and issued a "six month extension." The ship loaded scrap metal bound for the Mitsubishi Corporation and set sail for Japan, encountering heavy seas in the North Pacific. The plating on the hull ripped apart and the ship sank, killing eight of the 14 crew members. A Japanese TV crew filmed many of them jumping to their deaths as the ship went down.

A jury appointed by the U.S. District Court in Beaumont awarded survivors and families of the deceased a hefty verdict of $22 million, finding the owner of the ship and ABS each 50 percent liable. The jury also slapped ABS with another $3 million in punitive damages. The families later chose to settle out of court with ABS, but a strong legal precedent had been established. "That was the first time a classification society had been held liable," said Jerry Dodson, the families' Baton Rouge lawyer.

Another case filed against ABS around the same time tightened the legal noose of accountability around the company even further. In 1984 the Sundancer cruise ship struck a rock and sank near Vancouver. The ship's owner, Sundance Cruises, argued the vessel could have been saved had ABS detected defects during an $85,000 inspection conducted just two weeks earlier. Although an appeals court threw the case out on a technicality of Bahamian law, it established "negligent misrepresentation" as another valid cause to sue classification societies. Spain's Prestige attorney Brian Starer, who tried the Sundance case, said the precedent was essential. "It established the baseline for cases like the Prestige case now," he said.

ABS has successfully defended itself in other suits by stressing its own limitations. "ABS, or any classification society, has very limited ultimate responsibilities," company vice president Wade said. "The basic responsibility for a ship is the ship owner…We're not detective agencies. We're not policemen with wide-ranging powers. Only in the most extreme circumstances can we go onto a ship uninvited."

But attorneys point out that governments have increasingly relied on ABS to serve precisely as the industry's stick-wielding cop. The U.S. Coast Guard contracted ABS in 1995 to perform inspections of U.S. ships. ABS inspectors are now often the only domestic officials to ensure that American vessels follow major national and international rules. Reliance on ABS and other classification societies is often even greater overseas. Many countries lack the know-how to examine ships themselves, and depend almost entirely on classification societies. And when foreign ships arrive in the United States, Coast Guard officials look at which society certified them to decide if they merit inspection.

As the societies expand, they should become more accountable for their mistakes, said Starer. "These are not little classification societies anymore," he told Lloyd's List. "Their role in the industry is tremendous. But as their role has evolved, their liability has not."

A jury in Houston will probably be the first to hear arguments against ABS. Buzbee is gearing up for a trial this fall. "If we are successful, which I feel like we are gonna be now, this is going to set a major precedent for all classification societies," he said. "That's why it's such an important case."

Outside the lofty foyer of the ABS building in Houston, an American eagle stretches its wings and clenches the neck of a hefty anchor. A fleet of model ships lines the hallway inside, each tanker and bulk carrier a feat of engineering on a gallery scale. Up the elevator, on the eighth floor, hang oil paintings of generations of hoary corporate directors. The impression is that ABS knows more about ship safety than anybody.

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