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A storm, a freighter and a collision with the Sunshine Skyway

On Behalf of | Jun 27, 2022 | Admiralty & Maritime Defense

One of the most famous maritime disasters in the U.S. occurred in 1980 when a freighter crashed into Florida’s Sunshine Skyway Bridge during a storm.

A variety of lawsuits followed, and litigation continued for years. Where did the court ultimately determine responsibility lay for this calamity?

About the collision

On May 9, 1980, a heavy storm was lashing the Tampa, Florida, area. The freighter Summit Venture was heading into Tampa to pick up cargo when it crashed into a pier that provided support to the Sunshine Skyway, the bridge that connects Tampa with Bradenton. Due to poor visibility, southbound traffic on the bridge could not see the destruction ahead. One pickup truck, a Greyhound bus and several cars dropped 150 feet into the churning waters. The driver of the pickup miraculously survived, but 35 other people died.

Litigation

The lawsuits that followed included many wrongful death claims from the families of those who died. The truck driver filed a personal injury claim. Finally, the Florida Department of Transportation filed a claim for millions of dollars representing damage to the bridge. The captain of the freighter insisted the collision was an “act of God” given the stormy conditions. However, the ship could have anchored to wait out the storm. The judge, therefore, decided that the captain and crew of the Summit Venture were responsible for the tragedy.

Post-collision results

After the collision, the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials (AASHTO) adopted the “Guide Specification for Vessel Collision Design of Highway Bridges.” The guide sets forth a design code for bridges in navigable waterways “to prevent collapse of the superstructure.” Calculations include water depth plus size, type and speed of the vessels that would require passage so as to prevent a recurrence of the type of collision that took place when the Summit Venture attempted to pass beneath the Sunshine Skyway.