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Negligent Ship Pilot to Serve Ten Months for Bridge Collision and Oil Spill

Captain John Joseph Cota was sentenced to ten months in federal prison after he caused the Cosco Busan, a 900-ft container ship to collide with the San Francisco Bay Bridge. This collision discharged approximately 53,000 gallons of oil into San Francisco Bay, killing 2,400 birds of about 50 species, temporarily closing a fishery, and delaying the start of the crab-fishing season. According to prosecutors, Cota was “guilty of far more than a mere slip-up or an otherwise innocuous mistake that yielded unforeseeably grave damage. Rather, he made a series of intentional and negligent acts and omissions…”
Cota’s first mistake was departing in extreme fog. According to prosecutors the fog was so thick the bow of the vessel was not visible from the bridge. Regardless of the limited visibility, Cota continued on with his voyage. Furthermore, the vessel did not have a properly functioning radar. However, Cota did not notify the master or the United States Coast Guard that a piece of safety equipment was needed. Neither Cota nor any crewmember consulted the ship’s official navigations chart or take a single positional fix despite the lack of visibility. Finally, Cota did not disclose his medical conditions and prescription drug use on the required paperwork for the Coast Guard. Cota’s vessel eventually collided with the San Francisco Bridge after Cota was “confused regarding the operation of the electronic chart system upon which he chose to rely including the meaning of two red triangles that marked buoys marking the tower of the bridge that he eventually hit.”
The damage to the bridge, vessel and the economic impact to individuals was tens of millions of dollars. The clean-up cost for the bay exceeded $70 million. Numerous Brown Pelicans and Marbled Murrelets, two birds currently on the endangered species, were also killed because of Cota’s negligence. U.S. Attorney Joseph P. Russoniello hopes the court’s sentence of Cota will serve as “a deterrent to shipping companies and mariners who think violating the environmental laws that protect the waterways will go undetected or unpunished.”
The law office of Beard Stacey Trueb and Jacobsen, PLLC urges all pilots and mariners to follow safety regulations and instructions while aboard a vessel. Please do not operate the vessel during unsafe conditions, such as heavy fog or without the proper safety and navigation equipment. The maritime lawyers at Stacey & Jacobsen, PLLC represent injured mariners throughout the nation in claims involving the Jones Act and General Maritime Law. For any questions regarding maritime law or injuries sustained while working aboard a vessel, contact us at 206.282.3100 or visit our website at

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