In the Jan. 27 ruling, U.S. District Judge Samuel Conti said that vessel owners, required by state law to hire licensed pilots to navigate the bay, are also bound by another California law that makes them liable for any harm caused by the pilot's negligence.

The case of the Cosco Busan, 900-foot long container ship, involved a dispute of more than $315,000 in legal defense costs for the pilot, Capt. John Cota of Petaluma, who pleaded guilty to federal pollution charges and is currently serving 10 months in prison.

The federal ruling would require the owners to pay for all the damage attributed to Cota, unless they could show that the pilot acted "willfully" and not just negligently.

The ship's operating company, Fleet Management Ltd., pleaded guilty last August to criminal charges of water pollution and filing false documents, and agreed to pay $10 million in fines and penalties. Sentencing is scheduled for Feb. 19.

— Argus-Courier staff