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Ship owner sues pharmacists in 2007 San Francisco Bay spill

  • John Cota (PD FILE, 2007)

SAN FRANCISCO — The owners and operators of a container ship that slammed into the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge in 2007 and spilled thousands of gallons of oil into San Francisco Bay have sued the Northern California pharmacists they claim negligently dispensed prescription drugs to the pilot of the Cosco Busan.

The ship's owner, Regal Stone Ltd., and operator Fleet Management Ltd. Alleged in court papers filed in San Francisco Superior Court Friday that the pills "recklessly" provided by pharmacists at a Longs drug store in Petaluma had so clouded pilot John Cota's judgment and dulled his reflexes that they led to the crash.

The container ship spilled more than 50,000 gallons of oil into the bay after it collided with a bridge tower. The fuel traveled to beaches north and south of San Francisco, and biologists have blamed the spill for the deaths of more than 2,400 birds.

Michael DeAngelis, a spokesman for Rhode Island-based CVS Caremark, which owns Longs, said Wednesday that the company thinks Longs has no liability in the accident and plans to fight the lawsuit.

Last year, Regal Stone and Fleet Management agreed to pay $4.4 million in damages to federal, state and local agencies and another $3.6 million to 120 members of the Bay Area fishing community, the San Francisco Chronicle (http://bit.ly/Jpwxp3 ) reported. Fleet Management also was fined $10 million after the company pleaded guilty to polluting and filing false documents.

In their lawsuit, they maintain the pharmacy that furnished Cota with medication should foot some of the bill because pharmacists allegedly did not warn Cota about combining drugs, consulted his doctors or contacted pilot licensing authorities, the newspaper said.

The lawsuit does not list the drugs Cota took or say why he was prescribed them, but cites an email an unidentified pharmacy worker allegedly sent the Coast Guard after the November 2007 accident, advising investigators to "Check John Cota for prescription drugs."

After investigating the accident, the National Transportation Safety Board concluded that Cota's cognitive abilities had been degraded by prescription drug use. The board also faulted Cota, who had been a licensed pilot for 27 years, for choosing to sail in heavy fog, misreading the ship's radar and navigation charts and failing to share his navigation plan's with the captain.

Cota pleaded guilty in 2009 to federal charges of causing water pollution and was sentenced to 10 months in prison.

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Information from: San Francisco Chronicle, http://www.sfgate.com

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