World and Nation

Judge Blocks City's Attempt To Use Obscure Law to Cap Fines

A federal judge on Monday rejected New York City's attempt to use an obscure 19th-century maritime law to cap its liability in the 2003 crash of a 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 ferry, the Andrew J. Barberi, crashed into a maintenance pier at the Staten Island ferry terminal.

Eleven people died in what was one of the worst mass transit disasters in the city's history.

The city had argued that the accident was covered by an 1851 act, aimed at encouraging investment in the shipbuilding industry, that limited a vessel owner's liability to the value of the ship minus the repair costs — in this case $14.4 million. The judge ruled, however, that the 1851 law did not apply if the city's managers had been negligent, and he found that they had been.

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.

"The courthouse door is now open for all of the claimants to get just and proper compensation," said Anthony Bisignano III, a lawyer for 10 of the remaining 65 plaintiffs. Bisignano said that in addition to the nine outstanding death claims, there were many claims from passengers with serious injuries, including amputations and paralysis.

Bisignano said that the 1851 act was the same one cited by the owners of the Titanic in an attempt to "limit the amount of damages to the value of a couple of dozen lifeboats." The city said it would consider appealing.

On the afternoon of Oct. 15, 2003, the ferry slammed into a pier at top speed after the assistant captain operating it, Richard J. Smith, blacked out during the last half mile of the trip from Manhattan to Staten Island. The accident ripped open the side of the 3,300-ton vessel like a sardine can. People were crushed, mangled and decapitated.

A city rule requiring that two captains be in the pilothouse in the front of the ferry while it is in motion was not followed. The captain, Michael J. Gansas, was on board at the time of the crash, but in the pilothouse that faced Manhattan, not the one that faced Staten Island, as he should have been.

The city had also argued that because its two-pilot rule was stricter than required by general negligence principles, the violation of the rule did not constitute negligence.

In any case, the city said, individual crewmembers, not the city, were at fault.

But the judge, Edward R. Korman of U.S. District Court in Brooklyn, rejected those arguments. He wrote that by adopting the two-pilot rule, the city acknowledged a serious risk of accident if the pilot were incapacitated, and that knowledge of that risk required the city to remedy it.