Four plaintiffs seek more than $41 million from Coast Guard, Corps of Engineers

Staff Reporter

Four people have filed legal claims against the U.S. Coast Guard and the Army Corps of Engineers, alleging that the agencies neglected to take measures that could have prevented the death of one man and the injuries of three others last summer when their boats struck a submerged warship in Mobile Bay.

The four plaintiffs seek a total of more than $41 million in wrongful death, personal injury and property damage claims.

"My clients also want the vessel to either be removed or marked far more clearly for the safety of the public," said Mobile lawyer Greg Breedlove, who is representing all four claimants. "Most of the time you can't see it, but it's inches below the surface. It's clearly a hazard."

The claimants are Howard Melech, Eddie Tyrone Crawford, Rebecca Nelson and Diane Melech, the wife of Ronald Melech, who was killed when his boat hit the sunken warship in August. Attempts to contact the plaintiffs Monday afternoon were unsuccessful.

The cases involve two separate boat accidents on Aug. 9, 2003.

Ronald Melech, 54, died after he was thrown into water on the evening of Aug. 9, when his 17-foot pleasure boat hit the submerged wreck. Eddie Tyrone Crawford, a friend who was also on board, managed to struggle back into the boat after being thrown in the water. Howard Melech, Ronald Melech's brother, managed to stay on board the boat.

Just a few hours before the Melech's fatal accident, Baldwin County resident Rebecca Nelson had hit the wreck and received injuries, Breedlove said.

The claims against the Coast Guard were filed in October, while the Corps of Engineers claims were filed in late December, according to court paperwork obtained by the Register.

According to the Federal Tort Claims Act, federal agencies have six months from the time such claims are filed to decide whether to settle or go to court, said Pat Robbins, spokesman for the corps' Mobile district office. If the agencies do not settle, claimants have a six-month window to file a lawsuit.

"I do intend to file lawsuits if the claims are denied," Breedlove said.

Spokesmen for the corps and the Coast Guard said the agencies' respective legal staffs are reviewing the merits of the claims.

"Of course, we take all claims seriously, but especially one that is the result of such a tragic accident," said Coast Guard spokesman Rob Wyman.

The United States government is immune from lawsuits unless Congress has waived the government's immunity. In 1948, Congress passed the Federal Tort Claims Act, which permits people and corporations injured by the actions of federal employees to bring suit in federal court, Breedlove said.

Many boaters, including members of the Melech family, have claimed in the past that the Coast Guard hasn't marked the 100-foot-plus wreck well enough. Some say they have complained for years that the single marker, bearing a navigation warning symbol that few recreational boaters recognize, was not sufficient to warn people of the derelict vessel.

Shortly after the Aug. 10 accident, the Alabama Marine Police, with the Coast Guard's permission, added two additional markers -- buoys bearing the words "Hazard Area." The markers often float away or are stolen, and the Register was unable to contact Marine Police officials Monday to determine whether the site is still marked.

Coast Guard officials maintain they have marked the vessel sufficiently since 1992, when the agency placed a temporary float at the site. The current marker was erected in 1996, and just two weeks before the Melech accident, the Coast Guard's navigation aid office placed lights on top of the posted red sign that permanently marks the site.

The red triangular sign, mounted on a 14-foot-tall post, is marked "WR2," which warns those who are familiar with the federal nautical system to stay to the seaward side and not pass between the sign and the shore, said Lt. Michael Adams, public affairs officer for the Coast Guard's Group Mobile.

But many boaters say that kind of sign is familiar only to commercial captains, not to the pilots of private vessels, who aren't required to know them to get a state boating license.

Alabama historians say the warship, the USS Lt. Col. Gildart, is a turn-of-the-century minelayer once used by the Army as part of the coastal defenses supervised by that armed service. Those defenses included forts and minefields.

The vessel was sunk by the Army to shore up eroding sands at Fort Morgan as part of a public improvement project in 1936. The sunken wreck helped support a wharf used to receive supplies by boat. The wharf washed away decades ago.

Breedlove said that, because the Coast Guard was the first agency to mark the sunken vessel in 1992, the agency is responsible for marking it for public safety. Breedlove said he filed claims with the Army Corps of Engineers because the Gildart is an Army vessel. Both the corps and the Coast Guard have federal authority to address derelict and abandoned vessels.

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