Monday, February 26, 2007

Staten Island Ferry Case

The Staten Island Ferry crash of 2003, in which eleven passengers died and many others were injured, led to numerous wrongful death and personal injury claims against New York City.  Many of the claims have settled, but others remain in litigation.  The city has contended that under federal maritime law (specifically, the Limitation of Vessel Owner’s Liability Act), its liability is limited to the value of the ship.  Today, Chief Judge Edward Korman of the Eastern District of New York ruled against the city on this critical issue, finding that the failure to enforce a two-pilot rule (requiring that two captains be in the front-facing pilot house while the ferry is in motion) was negligent.  Judge Korman's opinion -- with an extensive negligence analysis citing such classics as U.S. v. Carroll Towing, The T.J. Hooper, and McCarty v. Pheasant Run -- belongs in a Torts casebook.  A New York Times article -- N.Y. Can't Limit Ferry Crash Damages, Judge Says -- reports on the decision:

A federal judge today rejected New York City’s attempt to use an obscure 19th-century maritime law to cap its liability in the 2003 crash of the Staten Island Ferry at $14 million.

The ruling exposes the city to tens of millions of dollars in damage awards to relatives of those killed and to scores of people injured when the boat, the Andrew J. Barberi, crashed into a maintenance pier at the Staten Island ferry terminal.

The city had argued that the accident was covered by an 1851 act, aimed at encouraging investment in the shipbuilding industry, that limited a boat owner’s liability to the value of the boat minus the repair costs — in this case $14.4 million.

The city has already paid out $27.6 million to settle two-thirds of the 186 damage claims. Of the 11 people killed in the crash, the estates of only two have settled with the city, for $3 million and $450,000.

The amounts of many settlements were held down, lawyers for the plaintiffs said, by the city’s argument that if it succeeded in capping the liability, the plaintiffs stood to win relatively little.


Judge Korman wrote: “The blame for this laxity lies squarely on the shoulders of the city.” The 1851 act limiting liability, he added, does not apply when the negligent parties include supervisors.


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