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Richard W. Palmer, 97, leading maritime lawyer

Richard W. Palmer, 97, formerly of Haverford, a Philadelphia maritime lawyer for a half-century, died Wednesday, March 1, of heart failure at Pennsylvania Hospital.

From 1948 to the late 1990s, Mr. Palmer represented vessel owners, insurance companies, and shipping interests, first in New York City and later in Philadelphia, at the law firm of Rawle & Henderson. Starting in 1979, he was a partner in Palmer, Biezup & Henderson.

Mr. Palmer handled one of the most high-profile admiralty cases of his day: the litigation arising from the Jan. 30, 1975, ramming of the Liberian tanker Corinthos by the chemical tanker Edgar M. Queeny at the BP Refinery in Marcus Hook.

The impact as the Corinthos sat docked on the opposite bank of the Delaware River, off-loading crude oil, caused the vessel to explode in flames, killing 26 crewmen and injuring 11. The Queeny sustained minor damage, but the river was fouled with oil, and property damage amounted to more than $20 million.

In the litigation that followed, Mr. Palmer represented the Corinthos. He obtained inspection records showing that before the collision, the Queeny had continued operating despite damage to a stern engine turbine. As a result, when the Queeny needed to turn sharply to avoid the Corinthos, it could not muster enough power to do so.

By proving negligence, Mr. Palmer was able to refute an admiralty law principle in force limiting liability of the responsible ship to the value of its salvaged hulk. Though the parties declined to reveal the amount of the settlement, it was substantially more than would have been garnered under the established principle.

Mr. Palmer also represented Lloyd's of London in the March 24, 1989, oil spill from the Exxon Valdez, which ran aground in Prince William Sound, Alaska. In that role, he sought to limit the British insurer's payout for the $2.5 billion environmental cleanup.

Seven years later, after litigation, Lloyd's, along with other smaller insurers, settled for $780 million.

Among the cases Mr. Palmer recalled with the most pride was his 1959 representation of the Marie Leonhardt, a ship carrying iron ore that struck the Delair Bridge when the drawbridge operator failed to raise the drawspan over the Delaware River in time to allow the boat passage.

He proved that the bridge operator was at fault, and an appeals court agreed.  "The conduct of those in charge of the bridge constituted an invitation to the vessel to proceed," the U.S.  Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit ruled in 1963.

"He did love that one," said daughter Anne F. Palmer.

Born in Boston, Mr. Palmer graduated from Harvard College in 1942.  He joined the Navy the same year and spent World War II in the Pacific Theater as an officer on cargo ships delivering supplies to the fleet.

After the war, he served as a lieutenant commander in the Navy Reserve before graduating from Harvard Law School in 1948.  That year, he began his legal career at Burlingham, Veeder, Clark & Hupper in New York.

While in New York, he met Nancy Shaw, a staff member at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

"They discovered a shared interest in international relations and love of spirited conversation," the Palmer family said in a tribute.

They married in 1950.  When asked the secret to his longevity, Mr. Palmer always responded, "Nancy."

In the late 1950s, the couple moved to Haverford.   

Law partner Alfred J. Kuffler said that Mr. Palmer was not only prominent in his field, but also known for his efforts to help younger attorneys build skills and client relationships in high-profile cases.

He served as president of the Maritime Law Association and was a member of the permanent advisory board of the Tulane Admiralty Law Institute, which hosts academic conferences.

Mr. Palmer retired from full-time practice in the late 1990s.  He remained active on various boards of directors well into his 80s, only recently stepping down from his position on the board of the Philadelphia Beltline Railroad, a corporation organized around a short railroad along the Delaware River waterfront.

A witty and gifted storyteller even at 97, he was much loved by family and friends for his warmth, quick laugh, and enthusiastic bear hugs.

Besides his daughter and wife, he is survived by sons Richard W. Jr. and John W., and four grandchildren.

Services and interment will be private.

Donations may be made to Episcopal Community Services, 25 S. Third St., Philadelphia 19106, or via