CONVENT — A crane accident that shuttered the Sunshine Bridge last week isn't just costing thousands of people time, it's costing them money, too, but recovering losses from those ultimately found responsible will likely be an uphill battle.

Lawyers say that, because the crane was mounted on a Mississippi River barge, maritime law will likely apply to lawsuits seeking damages and maritime law generally limits who can file a valid claim.

“The nearby residents, the nearby businesses, they really don’t have any recourse because they don’t own the thing that got physically damaged,” said Sean McLaughlin, a maritime law attorney with Kean Miller. He cited a nearly century-old law, the Robins Dry Dock rule, that often protects operators from liability for economic losses.

“It’s just tough. It’s definitely an uphill battle,” McLaughlin said.

The rule developed through the 1927 case Robins Dry Dock & Repair v. Flint and protects operators from being held liable for tertiary economic damages caused by accidents on the water. McLaughlin, who said he has not looked at any cases involving the Sunshine Bridge accident, said that, generally, only people or companies that suffer physical damage from a crash can recover damages, and sometimes damages are limited only to the cost of repairs.

A lawsuit filed Monday in St. James Parish alleges the companies involved in the Oct. 12 crash acted negligently and seeks damages for businesses and individuals impacted by the span's closure. The Louisiana Department of Transportation and Development has said a barge-mounted crane, in an extended position, ran into the southwest side of the bridge in the dead of night. The National Transportation Safety Board and the U.S. Coast Guard are investigating.

A crane barge was being pulled up the Mississippi River by a Marquette Transportation Co. towboat when it crunched metal trusses and beams more than 100 feet in the air, state and federal investigators have said. The Coast Guard, which remains the lead agency in the crash investigation, has refused to identify the pilot of the towboat and referred questions about that person’s current status as a towboat pilot and what company owns the crane barge to Marquette. Marquette has not responded to list of questions.

State highway officials have not provided an actual timeline for the repairs, although an agency spokesman said Thursday workers were expected to start building a platform for the repair job as soon as this weekend. They have said it could be months before the span reopens.

In the meantime, the closure has upended life for the more than 20,000 people who use it daily, turning a 90-second drive across the bridge near Donaldsonville into, in many cases, a 90-minute ordeal roughly 50 miles out of the way either on the Plaquemine/Sunshine Ferry or the Veterans Memorial Bridge near Gramercy.

In the St. James Parish lawsuit, one of the central claims of negligence centers around the allegation that the crane was in the upright position when it hit the bridge, “violating all safety rules of the river.”

The plaintiffs in that suit are Kenneth Frederic, owner of Donaldsonville Glass & Body Works, and Nolan “Billy” Guillot, Jr, owner of First & Last Chance, a historic Donaldsonville restaurant, but plaintiff’s attorneys Marvin Gros of Donaldsonville and Marty Maley of Baton Rouge are seeking class-action status hoping to represent potentially thousands of affected people.

The defendants are Marquette Transportation Co., Cooper T. Smith Corp., its Louisiana subsidiary and unnamed employees of the company listed as ABC EMPLOYEE(S).

“I’m getting calls from people daily now that are financially impacted by this,” Maley said. “The crane owner had the crane in the upright position. We don’t think that is very prudent.”

Separately, Jean-Paul Robert, a Gonzales lawyer who is seeking to represent other clients, said the use of maritime law as explained by McLaughlin was "brutal."

The longstanding maritime precedent once precluded a railroad company, which had one of its bridges taken out by a vessel, from recouping on any additional losses beyond replacement of the bridge, even though trains had to be rerouted for two months.

“You’re going to have to thread the needle,” Robert said. “They’re going to have to have some kind of connection to the river to be able to recover (damages) under maritime law.”

Robert said his potential clients have “that connection,” including dirt businesses that work along the river and haul material on both sides of the waterway.

The Deepwater Horizon oil spill in 2010, which led to a wave of litigation and billions in payouts to a wide range of people and businesses affected, fell under a different set of pollution laws that did not include the Robins Dry Dock rule. McLaughlin said the Fifth Circuit did apply the rule for some claims in that case, including some from the Mexican government. Also, the BP oil spill was resolved through a settlement, he noted, which allowed people who might not have been legally entitled to a recovery to take part.

The class-action lawsuit claims defendant Cooper/T. Smith Stevedoring Co., a Louisiana subsidiary of an international stevedoring corporation with operations in Ascension and St. James parishes, as the owner of the barge and crane involved in the crash. The suit claims the company was responsible for the crane’s position at the time of the collision.

The lawsuit faults all the defendants for failing to train its employees properly and failing to operate the vessel safely.

The Coast Guard has not identified the owner of the crane. The NTSB did not have information on the owner’s identity either, only naming the barge as the Mr. Irvin.

Some of the lawsuit’s plaintiffs are people who use the bridge daily and others are businesses that have lost revenues, contracts or other forms of income because of the closure, the lawsuit says.

The suit seeks damages in an amount to be proven at trial, along with attorneys fees and court costs. Twenty-third Judicial District Judge Jessie LeBlanc has been assigned the case.

Eric Weiss, a spokesman for the NTSB, said the agency joined the investigation Saturday and that a preliminary report is expected in a couple of weeks.

A telephone message and email left with a spokesman for Cooper/T. Smith Thursday afternoon wasn’t immediately returned.

Follow David J. Mitchell on Twitter, @NewsieDave.