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NYC ferry ruling allows plaintiff cases to proceed


NEW YORK--A federal judge ruled Monday that New York may not limit its liability for a deadly 2003 ferry crash to the value of the ferry's hull, a ruling the city may seek to overturn in appellate court.

The city cannot invoke the 1851 Limitation of Liability Act to limit its liability to the $14.4 million ferry hull value because the former head of ferry operations was negligent by failing to enforce safety measures that would have prevented the crash, ruled U.S. District Court Judge Edward R. Korman in the New York case.

As a result, nearly 100 plaintiffs in the case can proceed with individual cases against the city, said plaintiffs' attorney Anthony Bisignano of Bosco Bisignano & Mascolo Esqs. L.L.P. in Staten Island, N.Y.. Mr. Bisignano said he represents 10 plaintiffs.

Eleven people died and scores more were injured when the Staten Island Ferry Andrew J. Barberi crashed Oct. 15, 2003, into a maintenance pier near the Staten Island Ferry Terminal at its full speed of 14 to 16 knots, or 16 to 18 mph.

In violation of standard operating procedures, the ferry's captain was not in the pilothouse with the assistant captain, whose fatigue caused him to become incapable of realizing the ferry was off course and headed for disaster, according to court papers.

Patrick Ryan, the former director of ferry operations, later was convicted of one count each of seaman's manslaughter and making a false statement. He was sentenced to 366 days in prison. In his plea allocution, Mr. Ryan conceded he knew that the ferry crews were not following the ferry's standard operating procedures, the court noted.

That admission makes New York liable without limitation, the plaintiffs argue.

The city, however, contends it is not liable and that any liability it has should be limited to the ferry hull's value under the 19th century liability act, which was enacted to encourage investment in shipbuilding.

Judge Korman noted that both sides already agreed that any negligence attributed to Mr. Ryan in his executive capacity with the ferry would "defeat" the city's efforts to limit its liability.

"At the time the accident occurred, the internal rules were neither well understood nor effectively enforced. The Staten Island Ferry had no formal safety management system. There was no single manual that was readily accessible to crew members. There was no mechanism to monitor who had received the procedures and at what time. And there was no system for ensuring that the rules were actually obeyed," Judge Korman ruled.

"The blame for this laxity lies squarely on the shoulders of the city," the judge ruled.

Judge Korman also rejected the city's argument that its internal rules were not admissible evidence. The city argued that considering its rules, which exceed the legal standard of care, unfairly exposes it to liability.

Citing a 1955 Arizona Supreme Court ruling that Judge Korman characterized as the leading case in the area, he ruled: "A rational company, then, will be far more concerned with actually preventing accidents than with gaming future negligence actions by carefully crafting its safety manual."

Referring to Mr. Ryan, New York Corporate Counsel Michael A Cardozo said in a statement: "The court has already found him criminally responsible for his actions. We respectfully disagree with the court's conclusion that the city was negligent with regard to this accident. We believe that the ferry's policies and practices were safe on Oct. 15, 2003, as they have been throughout its hundred-year history."

The city, which said it is considering appealing the ruling to the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, is self-insured.