Wednesday, April 9, 2008

53,000 gallon California spill Captain convicted of DUI

California DUI / Drunk Driving criminal defense attorney news

April 9, 2008

The pilot of the container ship that allegedly spilled 53,000 gallons of fuel oil into the San Francisco Bay was convicted of DUI and took prescription drugs that could have affected his cognitive abilities.

Captain John Cota was apparently diagnosed with alcoholism and developed pancreatitis as a result of his drinking, according to testimony at a National Transportation Safety Board hearing. One NTSB investigator questioned why a local pilots board hadn't noticed a worsening pattern after a 2004 incident in which Cota was enraged and irrational on-board a ship, and another in 2006 in which a vessel he was piloting ran aground.

Cota apparently should not have been granted a pilot license by the Coast Guard after a physical last year, according to a medical witness who referred to a long list of medical conditions including sleep apnea, which can cause problems sleeping and drowsiness during the day.

Cota is facing possible federal civil charges and declined to testify at the hearing. He was taking anti-anxiety pills, Wellbutrin for depression and medications for pain, migraines, glaucoma and to combat his sleep apnea, among other prescriptions.

Cota's DUI / Drunk Driving / defense attorney did not comment.

With Cota piloting, the 900-foot Cosco Busan sideswiped a support of the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge in heavy morning fog, gashing the ship's side and fuel tank. The spill fouled the fragile bay, killing or injuring thousands of birds and closing beaches.

Documents released by the NTSB at the first day of the hearing Tuesday showed that the medications Cota took prompted the Coast Guard to ask him to voluntarily turn in his mariner's license in the weeks after the accident because of concerns about his judgment, according to California DUI / Drunk Driving attorney sources.

NTSB investigator Dr. Barry Strauch revealed Wednesday that Cota was convicted of DUI / Drunk Driving - driving under the influence in February 1999, apparently was diagnosed with alcoholism and entered an alcohol rehabilitation program. A waiver was granted so he could retain his pilot's license, Strauch said. The alcohol use was likely the cause of his pancreatitis, California DUI / Drunk Driving lawyers said.

One of the medications Cota took was Lorazapam, the generic version of the anti-anxiety drug Xanax, which Bourgeois said the FAA doesn't let their pilots use. The pills have a half-life of 11 or 12 hours and "that's not something you'd want to have onboard when you're trying to do important duties," the doctor said. Medications could have interacted with each other to exacerbate side-effects.

Transcripts of the voyage data recorder show Cota was confused about the Cosco Busan's navigation systems the morning of the crash. Cota boarded locally to assist the Chinese-speaking crew and struggled to understand the ship's devices in near-zero visibility. "Yeah, it's foggy, I shouldn't have gone," Cota says shortly after the crash. He tells the ship's master he misunderstood the chart and the master's explanations of it, apparently mixing up different symbols.

Yet Cota denied to an NTSB interviewer that an apology he offered the master was a statement of wrongdoing and accused the ship's master of misreading the charts.

There was debate Wednesday over Cota's record, with Strauch, the NTSB investigator, citing previous incidents including one in 2004 where Cota grew irate at crew members on a ship called Tarawa over non-regulation equipment.

He berated the crew with "offensive and derogatory language," according to a letter by the San Francisco Board of Pilot Commissioners closing out the incident, which a review board treated as a "medical issue." Cota was removed temporarily but subsequently deemed fit.

In 2006, Cota was reprimanded for "lack of situational awareness" by the Board of Pilot Commissioners after a freighter he was piloting ran aground. A list released by the NTSB shows that not counting the Cosco Busan, Cota was involved in 12 incidents of groundings or ship damage since being licensed in 1981, but not all of those involved pilot error. California DUI / Drunk Driving lawyers point to other possible errors.