As maritime lawyers, we’ve been drawing attention to the underestimated hazards from the use of cell phones while operating vessels.   According to the National Transportation Safety Board, the operator of a tugboat involved in a deadly maritime accident involving a barge and a tourist boat in the Delaware River in Philadelphia, was on a cell phone at the time of the accident.  Mate Matt Devlin, who had been operating the tugboat at the time it plowed into the Ride the Ducks boat, had been dealing with a family emergency, and had made several calls on his cell phone in the minutes before the accident.

At the time of the accident, Devlin was having a conversation with his mother about the family emergency.  Distracted by his phone, he failed to see the stalled tourist boat in the path of his tugboat.  There had been a malfunction on the boat, and the air horn could not be sounded to alert the tugboat operator.  The people on the boat could only stare in horror as the massive tugboat-barge formation raced towards them.

The tugboat crashed through the boat, sending 37 passengers into the water.  Two of them died.  According to the New York Times, Devlin, an employee of K-Sea Transportation made at least 15 calls from his cell phone, and received at least six calls.  He was the phone for about 52 minutes when the accident occurred.

K-Sea Transportation denies knowledge of its employee’s family emergency.  According to his employers, if Devlin had asked the company for time to deal with his problem, the company would’ve provided another operator to take over for him.  The company has a policy banning the use of personal cell phones while operating a vessel.

The National Transportation Safety Board is likely to use this accident to reiterate the dangers from the use of electronic communication devices while operating vessels.