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Judge rules against Princess in grounding case

Posted: Thursday, February 08, 2001

JUNEAU (AP) -- A judge has ruled Princess Cruises cannot sue the state for failing to discover that a marine pilot was taking an anti-depressant medication when he grounded the Star Princess near Juneau in 1995.

Princess Cruises and two of its insurers claimed Alaska regulators were negligent in not learning about Capt. Robert Nerups use of Effexor.

They contended the prescription medicine may have impaired the pilot, contributing to an accident that caused about $27 million in damage.

The 805-foot, 63.5-ton Star Princess was traveling southbound from Skagway with more than 2,200 passengers and crew when it hit the submerged Poundstone Rock, punching two holes in its hull and puncturing 22 ballast and fuel tanks. The rock is marked by a flashing red light.

The cruise line argued the state Board of Marine of Pilots should have learned about Nerups medication before the grounding through during earlier license renewals and stricter investigations of his previous mishaps in Southeast Alaska.

While Juneau Superior Court Judge Patricia Collins agreed the standards urged by Princess are reasonable, she also said state procedures for licensing and investigations are policy decisions shielded by statutory immunity.

''Given the discretionary latitude afforded each of the above issues under Alaska law, this court is satisfied that the above issues are grounded in policy decisions that are not jury questions,'' Collins wrote in a summary judgment issued Feb. 1.

The judge also questioned the assumption that knowledge of Nerups medical history would have resulted in his Alaska pilots license being revoked.

''There is no regulation, policy, or other limitation that prohibits a pilot from obtaining professional mental health treatment,'' Collins said.

Nerup was also the pilot of two commercial vessels in 1987 during separate accidents in Hobart Bay as well as the Island Princess in 1991 when it collided with another cruise ship, the Regent Sea, in Skagway's harbor.

The state disciplined him twice, suspending his license until he satisfied additional requirements and completed probation.

''Its our theory that pilot Nerup has a fairly extensive record of bad piloting in Alaska waters,'' Princess attorney Al Peacock said Tuesday. ''From our standpoint, the state had ample opportunity on prior casualties and investigation of those casualties to discover that pilot Nerup was suffering from depression and using anti-depressant drugs that render him unfit to pilot vessels.''

State Assistant Attorney General Susan Cox countered that Nerups mental health was not an issue until after the 1995 grounding of the Star Princess. His use of Effexor was disclosed during the subsequent investigation by the National Transportation Safety Board.

Cox called it disingenuous for Princess to describe Nerup as incompetent for years when the cruise line stood by him after the 1991 Skagway accident.



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