The California Board of Pilot Commissioners decided to file a formal accusation against Guy Kleess after a committee investigated the Jan. 7 incident, found pilot error and recommended disciplinary action against him.
The case now goes before an administrative law judge, who will hold a trial to hear evidence and determine whether Kleess should have his pilot's license suspended or revoked. The board will then vote on whether to accept the judge's ruling.
The board also voted Thursday to temporarily suspend Kleess' license until the case is resolved to "protect the public interest." The judge is required to hold a hearing within 40 days.
Kleess, 61, was in control of the 752-foot Overseas Reymar when the oil tanker hit a western-span tower of the bridge, resulting in $220,000 in ship damage and as much as $1.4 million in damage to the bridge.
The committee concluded Kleess lost situational awareness, failed to communicate effectively with the crew, became "complacent" and didn't use all the human and technical resources at his disposal during the incident.
"Capt. Kleess lost awareness of what was happening around him and how information, events and his own actions impacted his objectives," the panel's report said.
Kleess committed misconduct because he did not use "ordinary care of an expert in his profession" when manoeuvring the vessel, the report concluded.
At Thursday's hearing, Kleess' attorney, Rex Clack, did not dispute the facts in the committee's report but said Kleess met the standards of his profession in difficult circumstances.
"The standard is not perfection, but reasonable care of a skilled pilot. Furthermore, a pilot should not be judged by 20-20 hindsight," Clack said at Thursday's hearing.
A message left at Kleess's home was not immediately returned.
The report found that Kleess changed course shortly before the collision because of reduced visibility and the discovery that a radar beacon between two towers of the bridge was not working.
The tower's wooden fenders were damaged in the crash, but the bridge remained open to vehicle traffic. No one was injured and no fuel was spilled.
Kleese was rested and had been off-duty for 39 hours before boarding the tanker at 10:30 a.m., about an hour before the crash, according to the report. Kleess and the crew tested negative for alcohol and drug use, according to the Coast Guard, which is also investigating the incident.
Since 1850, state law has required bar pilots to guide every large vessel in and out of the San Francisco Bay and other Northern California waterways. The law has created an elite cadre of 50 to 60 highly skilled ship captains who earn an annual income of about $450,000, which is set by the state commission and paid entirely by ship owners.
It's fairly rare for a bar pilot to have his or her license suspended or revoked, said David Russo, an attorney for Kleess.
Kleess, who was first licensed as a bar pilot in 2005, had lost his pilot license between Nov. 9, 2010, and Jan. 11, 2011, after going on medical leave, board records show.
Records also indicate Kleess was involved in three previous accidents, including one in which a ship he was piloting damaged a dock in Stockton in 2009. He was held responsible for two and ordered to undergo more training.
It was the second time since 2007 that a large vessel controlled by a local pilot struck the Bay Bridge. A cargo ship operated by Capt. John Cota hit the bridge on a foggy morning in November 2007, spilling 53,000 gallons of oil into the bay.
Cota pleaded guilty to two misdemeanours environmental charges and was sentenced to 10 months in prison. The companies that owned and operated the cargo ship paid a combined $60 million to settle lawsuits and criminal charges.