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An Australian Government Museum Is Being Sued After A $30m Submarine It Borrowed Caught Fire On A US Highway

The Deepsea Challenger is capable of diving to the deepest parts of the ocean.

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The Deepsea Challenger submarine has descended to the greatest depths of the ocean, plunging almost 11km beneath the surface. It’s built to last. Film director James Cameron broke the world record in 2012 for the deepest dive into the ocean in the vessel.

But it wasn’t the sea that finally crippled the vessel, rather a truck that caught on fire on the I-95 in Connecticut as it made its way south to Baltimore.

Now, an Australian government museum, a US shipping company, an insurance underwriter, a truck driver and the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI) are enveloped in two US lawsuits over who is responsible for the fire that almost scuttled the Deepsea Challenger.

The submersible is a 7m-long vessel designed for deep sea exploration. It was designed and built over a seven-year period in Australia by a team of engineers assembled by Cameron, headed by submarine engineer Ron Allum, and in partnership with National Geographic.

After Cameron's successful dive, he donated the vessel in 2013 to the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in Massachusetts. He said at the time that the institution was a place where the vessel "will be a living, breathing and dynamic programme going forward."

In 2015 the Australian National Maritime Museum (ANMM), owned by the Australian government, wanted to bring the vessel back home to display it in Sydney.

It signed a two-year loan agreement with the institution. The agreement included a requirement to indemnify the institution if any damage was caused to the submarine, along with a duty to insure the submersible to the value of US$5 million.

Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution agreed to loan the ANMM the Deepsea Challenger submersible in 2015. The ocean carrier Ridgeway International USA Inc was contracted to transport the submarine from Woods Hole to Australia in July 2015.

Anderson Trucking Service was subcontracted by Ridgeway to transport the submersible from Woods Hole to Baltimore via truck. Ridgeway also purchased insurance from Eagle Underwriting Group.

Once this set of arrangements was in place, the submarine was loaded onto a truck and began the 460km journey to Baltimore.

But after the truck departed a trucking facility in Rhode Island on July 23, 2015, it caught fire in transit.

The Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution's court filing states that the fire caused "massive damage to the submersible", including the "aesthetics, structure, buoyancy and operational functionality". The legal filings by Woods Hole point to some concerns with the rear axle brakes on the truck, and a tyre blow-out earlier in the journey.

In an unusual move, the first legal action was initiated by Anderson Trucking Company seeking a declaration that its conduct was not unlawful, and that it is not liable for damages. This came after Woods Hole issued a statement of demand in April 2016 for the damage to the submarine. It costed the damage at $8,307,101.

Woods Hole subsequently initiated a separate action in October 2017 claiming damages from all parties concerned. Its primary claim is against Anderson Trucking Company, which it says was negligent and engaged in unfair and deceptive practices.

"Through its negligence, gross negligence, recklessness, breaches of duty, acts, omissions, and failure to exercise the requisite standard of care, ATS proximately caused damage to the Submersible and failed to deliver the Submersible to WHOI in the same good order and conditions as it was received by ATS," court filings from Woods Hole state.

But the legal action also includes several claims against the ANMM. The institute is seeking damages from the ANMM for breach of contract and bailment obligations pursuant to the agreement it signed with the institution.

The institution's court filings state that the museum "negligently failed to deliver the submersible to WHOI, or its designees, in the same good order and condition as it was received by ANMM".

It states that the loan agreement was breached by failing to ensure the Deepsea Challenger was "properly safeguarded" and returned in the same condition as it was loaned.

"By reason of the foregoing, ANMM has proximately caused damage, loss, and expense, to WHOI, and to others on whose behalf WHOI bring suit herein in an amount to be proven at trial, including attorneys' fees and defense costs," it wrote.

The Australian museum denies any liability over the incident. It relies primarily on the ground that as an entity of the Australian government it can't be sued in a foreign court.

The litigation has sparked some particularly serious allegations against Anderson Trucking Company. The case has focused considerable attention on the truck's braking system.

Ridgeway International USA claims that ATS "intentionally destroyed documents and physical evidence relating to the fire that caused the alleged damage to the shipment".

It alleges ATS had destroyed the driver's log, on board computer records, daily inspection reports and other maintenance records that had been identified as potential evidence.

In a statement to BuzzFeed News, ATS's attorney Andrew Fay said: "While ATS does not typically comment on pending litigation, it categorically denies Ridgeway’s allegations regarding the destruction of evidence”.

A spokeswoman for the ANMM said: "Given the matter is still before the courts, the Australian National Maritime Museum will not be providing any comments."

The Deepsea Challenger is currently being repaired in the US.

Paul Farrell is a senior reporter for BuzzFeed News and is based in Sydney.

Contact Paul Farrell at paul.farrell@buzzfeed.com.

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