Legal Stage Is Set For Portland Judge To Decide Fault In Starbound Sinking
The Tanker Virgo’s Owners File Documents Blaming
The Fishing Boat For A Collision That Killed Three Of Its Crew
By John Richardson
Portland Press Herald

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The owner and operator of a foreign tanker blamed for a collision that killed three New England fisherman in August denied any fault and countered with a claim against the fishing boat’s owner in documents filed Thursday in U.S. District Court in Portland.

The filings place the Portland courthouse at center stage in an emotional and high-stakes international civil case. Multimillion-dollar claims by grieving families in Maine and Massachusetts now hinge on who District Court Judge Gene Carter decides was at fault, according to lawyers in the case.

ALT Navigation Limited of Cyprus, owner of the tanker Virgo, and Primorsk Shipping Corp. of Russia, Virgo’s operator, filed a joint answer and claim against Atlantic Mariner Inc. of Rockland, owner of the sunken fishing boat Starbound. The documents say that any collision between the vessels was caused by the Starbound, and that its owner is liable for any claims from the accident.

Atlantic Mariner petitioned the court in August to be exonerated from blame and liability for the Aug. 5 sinking. The petition said Virgo was entirely at fault and imposed a deadline for any claims against the Starbound. The families of all the lost fishermen, and the sole survivor from Starbound, filed claims before time ran out at 5 p.m. Thursday.

“If you didn’t file a claim in this case against Starbound you would be forever barred,” said Carolyn Latti, a lawyer for the family of James Sanfilippo, a Thomaston fisherman lost with the vessel. “And if the Virgo did not file a claim and an answer, they could not ever bring in Starbound as a third party” that may have contributed to the tragedy.

Lawyers for the families say they continue to believe the Virgo bears most of the blame for the accident. And although the claims filed this week are aimed at the fishing boat owner, the judge in Portland will be free to assign blame and liability based on the evidence presented at trial.

“Everyone will be blaming everyone and it’s going to be all the parties in one forum kind of fighting it out,” Latti said.

The legal complexities in the case and the lack of clear answers about what happened have added to the families’ struggle to bring closure to their losses, their lawyers said.

The family of Mark Doughty, a Yarmouth fisherman who perished after the collision, filed a $4 million claim in the Portland court Tuesday. The families of the other lost fishermen, Sanfilippo and Thomas Frontiero of Gloucester, Mass., each filed $4 million claims against Atlantic Mariner on Thursday.

The families claim that the Starbound’s owner contributed to the suffering and death of the men because the vessel was unseaworthy.

Joseph Marcantonio, the sole survivor aboard Starbound, also filed a $4 million claim against Atlantic Mariner on Thursday. The claim says Marcantonio has been unable to work after being “violently thrown into the ocean, more than 125 miles from shore, alone and cognizant of the death of his fellow crew members and the sinking of his vessel.” He was saved after climbing into the boat’s life raft.

The families had already filed multi-million claims directly against Virgo in courts in Boston and Canada. Those claims will now be put on hold until liability is decided in Portland, the lawyers said.

Meanwhile, criminal charges stemming from the collision are also moving forward.

The U.S. Justice Department charged the Virgo’s Russian captain and two crew members with negligence and manslaughter, saying the officers did not try to evade the Starbound and then did not stop to help.

The department is expected to formally apply this week for their extradition to face a criminal trial in Washington, D.C.