Marseilles Elementary School sues U.S. government over Illinois River dam accident, resulting flood damage

By Jonathan Bilyk | Apr 21, 2015

A downstate public elementary school district has demanded the U.S. government pay more than $6.6 million to fix its school building, alleging the actions of the lockmaster at the Marseilles Lock and Dam on the Illinois River were responsible for a 2013 shipping mishap in which several barges struck and damaged the dam and its gates, causing the river to overflow its banks and flood the school building.

Marseilles Elementary School District 150 filed suit on April 17 against the federal government in federal court in Chicago.

The suit arises in the wake of the severe flooding experienced on April 18, 2013, in the town of Marseilles, located along the Illinois River in LaSalle County, about 75 miles southwest of Chicago.

Teams of barges, guided by pusher tugboats, regularly move up and down the Illinois River past the town through the Marseilles Lock and Dam.

However, barge traffic can be hampered or interrupted by high water on the river, and in mid-April 2013, heavy rainfall had pushed levels on the river along and around Marseilles to near record levels.

According to an official report issued June 13, 2014, by the National Transportation Safety Board, the crews of two barge pusher boats had moored their barge teams along the river upriver from Marseilles to wait out the high water conditions. However, as the water conditions worsened, the captains of the vessels decided they could not maintain their positions.

In consultation with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, who operate the lock and dam, and the U.S. Coast Guard, the captains of the vessels agreed to relocate their craft and barges to more secure positions. However, one of the pusher tugs, identified as the Dale A. Heller, was required to attempt to navigate the current to the channel known as the Marseilles Canal to reach the safer position.

To assist the Heller, the lockmaster at the Marseilles Lock and Dam was tasked with using the dam’s gates to manipulate the current, while several other pusher boats would work to keep the barges moving in the correct direction.

However, according to the NTSB report, the dam’s gates were not opened to the level agreed upon by the captains and the Army Corps’ lock administrators, and the new levels were not appropriately communicated to the boat captains.

When the current turned out to be different than anticipated, the NTSB report said the pusher boats lost control of the barges, causing several to strike and damage the dam. Some barges sank, and others came to rest against the dam.

This, in turn, caused river levels to rise rapidly, breeching the levee along the banks in Marseilles, flooding the school, among other parts of the village, located along the river banks.

In its complaint, the Marseilles school district claims the resulting flood caused more than $6.6 million in damage to the town’s elementary school.

The district alleges the lockmaster, acting under the auspices of the Army Corps, acted “negligently” in opening the gates to a higher level than was communicated to the boat captains and failing to “properly discharge his statutory duty to direct properly and safely the movement of vessels into the Marseilles Canal and approaches to the Marseilles Lock.”

The district is suing the federal government under the federal Suits of Admiralty Act and Admiralty Extension Act, which, the district argues, allows it to sue for “damages … consummated on land and caused by a vessel on navigable water.”

The district said it submitted an administrative claim under the Admiralty acts to the Army Corps in October 2014, but has yet to receive a reply, prompting the federal court complaint.

The Marseilles Elementary School District is being represented in the action by attorneys Bridget A. Liccardi, Michael L. Foran and George D. Pilja, of the firm of Foran Glennon Palandech Ponzi & Rudloff, of Chicago.

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