By William F. Doherty
The Boston Globe
December 21, 1976
A class action suit was filed by a group of Cape Cod fishermen in US District Court in Boston Saturday seeking $60 million in damages for alleged permanent damage to fishing areas caused by oil leaking from the tanker Argo Merchant grounded off Nantucket. The owner of the tanker, Thebes Shipping Co., Inc., was named as defendant.
However, in a countermove yesterday the ship owner filed its own suit in US District Court in New York to limit its liability to the value of the ship and its cargo.
US District Judge Thomas R. Griesa in New York yesterday issued a temporary restraining order barring the filing of other damage claims and halting proceedings in the Boston case until the New York suit is resolved.
Lawyers in Boston and New York last night were engaged in a legal tug of war over which of the two cities should be the site of taking sworn testimony scheduled for today from eight key members of the tanker’s crew.
After a telephone conversation with Judge Griesa, US District Judge Joseph L. Tauro in Boston ordered the crew members returned to Massachusetts from New York and their testimony taken here today at 2 p.m. Tauro said Griesa was agreeable that the depositions be taken here.
After Tauro’s order, however, New York lawyers representing the ship owner reminded Judge Griesa that last Friday he had ordered the depositions taken in New York starting today. The Friday order was made in connection with a third suit filed by the purchaser of the oil, Northeast Petroleum.
The class action suit was filed in Boston on behalf of the Cape Cod fishermen by Attys. Michael B. Latti and Joseph Flannery. They went to question the captain George Papadopoulos, the first second and third officers, the chief engineer and his assistant, the boatswain and the radio operator.
Assistant US Atty. William A. Brown, who attended yesterday’s hearing before Judge Tauro said the Federal government was not prepared to take legal action “as of yet.”
Plaintiffs in the fishermen’s suit to Boston are; the Cape Cod Commercial Fishermen’s Coalition, made up of 85 fishermen and boat owners, its president Jay Lansello of Orleans; three Rhode Island companies, Coast Canning Fish and Provision Co., Aquidneck Lobster Co. Inc., and Narragansett Fishing Corp., Leroy Faltus of Fairhaven, a charter boat owner, Martin Manley of East Freetown and Robert Brown of Deer Isle, Maine, commercial fishermen; three companies which own the fishing boats, Commodore, Christine & Sandra and Mary Jane; and Donald St. Pierre, former president of the Cape Cod Salties.
The suit said the leaking oil has “interfered with navigation and fishing, destroyed marine species within the waters damaged and destroyed personal property, polluted tidal and shelf lands and permanently polluted and destroyed shellfish beds, fishing areas and spawning grounds.”
The fishermen claim the spill has endangered their livelihood. They seek $50 million in compensatory damages and $10 million in punitive damages because of alleged “gross negligence, willful and wanton misconduct of the defendant.”
If the ship owner succeeds in New York in limiting its liability to the value of the ship and cargo and the ship eventually breaks up, the ship owner may escape liability for the damage caused by the spill. However, under Federal law the owner would have to show the ship was in good condition and he took all appropriate steps before the voyage.