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April 16, 2009

Tug owner seeks legal protection

Company targeted in Patriot case focuses on limited liability

A Louisiana company has asked a federal judge in New Orleans to exonerate it from any liability in January's sinking of the Gloucester fishing vessel Patriot, which was lost along with its family crew of two under mysterious circumstances.

Notified by the attorney for the co-owner of the Patriot, Josie Russo, that a suit was pending, Hornbeck Offshore Transportation LLC and a related operating company filed a "complaint for exoneration from and/or limitation of liability."

Hornbeck invoked the U.S. Limitation of Liability Act, which allows the court to limit liability to the actual value of the vessel responsible for the loss, bars any liability pending the results of a trial, and blocks any additional legal action litigants from enjoining the case until the trial is finished.

The publicly traded company, which is based in Covington, La., and operates a fleet of ocean-going tugs, filed its motion in U.S. District Court last month. In its filing, Hornbeck said the "estimated fair market value" of its tug and barge was $3.9 million.

The company's action said Josie Russo "claims to have sustained damage which could be in excess of the value" of the tug.

But Russo's lawyer, Joseph Abromovitz, said "we'll stipulate" that the losses were not greater than the value of the Gulf Service. He also said he would move to have the legal battle take place in a Boston courtroom.

One of Hornbeck's tugs, the Gulf Service, was passing through Massachusetts Bay on the night the Patriot went down. Through public comments at news conferences on consecutive days within a week of the tragedy, Coast Guard Capt. and Sector Boston commander Gail Kulisch described a tug and barge as potentially responsible for hitting with Patriot and causing the steel-hulled boat to sink.

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