US DOJ files suit to arrest MOL cruise ship Nippon Maru

The US Department of Justice is reported to have filed suit against Japan-based MOL to recover damages incurred as a result of the allision of the company’s single cruise ship, the Nippon Maru (IMO 8817631) with a US Navy fuel pier in Apra, Guam.

On December 30th 2018 the Japanese-flagged cruise ship left Apra, bound for Saipan with 372 passengers and 252 crewmembers on board. As it departed the harbour it struck the US Navy’s Delta fuel pier. The vessel was manoeuvring in a turning basin after leaving the harbour’s commercial port.

No injuries or pollution were reported, but Nippon Maru sustained a large hole near her stern, above the waterline. The fuel dock was also damaged.

damage to the vessel was estimated at $456,080, with damage to the mooring dolphins in excess of $500,000 (IMN, November 11th 2019)

The NTSB determined that the probable cause of the incident was alcohol impairment of the master while he controlled the vessel, resulting in an errant astern engine input.

The master stated that while he and the pilot attempted to pivot the vessel in the turning basin, he had mistakenly moved the joystick that controlled the Nippon Maru’s engines and rudder to the astern position. Statements from the third officer and bridge wing VDR audio recorded during the accident sequence confirm that the master moved the joystick astern, eventually moving it to full astern, and kept it there until after the vessel struck the mooring dolphins.

The master was documented as having a blood alcohol concentration (BAC) of 0.071 g/dL approximately five hours after the accident, and therefore it was considered likely by the NTSB that he consumed more alcoholic beverages than he reported. The Coast Guard maximum allowable BAC is 0.04 g/dL, and the company policy is less than 0.03 g/dL while on duty.

Because the breathalyzer test was conducted five hours after the incident, it was possible that the Master’s BAC was the result of additional alcohol consumed after the accident. However, the NTSB noted that the master’s errors in manoeuvring the vessel were not consistent with his level of skill and experience – in particular his experience with this vessel in this harbour – and suggested that he was impaired during the vessel’s voyage. Also, the pilot noted that the master smelled of alcohol just after the accident.

Given the evidence, the NTSB stated that it was likely that impairment from alcohol contributed to the accident.

The master reported that he drank one and a half cans of whisky and soda between three and four hours before the accident, along with a beer between two and threee hours after the accident.

MOL and the US government have been negotiating in an attempt to reach a settlement for the damage to the dock, but so far have been unsuccessful. On Wednesday March 1st the US Department of Justice petitioned a federal court to order the arrest and sale of Nippon Maru in an attempt to secure $8m to cover the damage to the pier at Apra. The suit alleges that MOL and its employees were negligent in allowing the Nippon Maru to strike a stationary object, and it references the suspicions that the master was operating under the influence of alcohol.

In its lawsuit filed in the District Court of Guam, the DOJ seeks judgment against the Mitsui O.S.K. Passenger Line Ltd. and Mitsui OSK Lines Ltd.

The suit seeks a warrant for the US Marshals to pursue Nippon Maru’s arrest, condemnation and sale. The proceeds would be used to cover repairs to the fuel pier, plus interest, costs and punitive damages.

Since Covid the vessel’s itinerary has focused primarily on Japanese coastal voyages. The vessel was built in 1990 and MOL had announced plans to build two replacements, with the Nippon Maru being retired.

At the time of the incident, 1990-built, Japan-flagged, 22,472 gt Nippon Maru was owned and managed by Mitsui Passenger of Tokyo, Japan. It was entered with UK Club (Area Group London J1) on behalf of Mitsui OSK Passenger Line Ltd. The same conditions apply today. As of March 5th the vessel was en route from Nagoya, Japan, to Hakata, Japan, ETA March 7th.