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Facing a stack of legal claims from victims of the Oct. 15 Staten Island Ferry crash, New York City moved on Monday to limit the city’s liability to $14 million and consolidate all lawsuits before a single federal judge in the Eastern District of New York. In a joint statement with City Comptroller William C. Thompson, Corporation Counsel Michael A. Cardozo also urged victims and their attorneys to engage in settlement talks with the city, saying claims could be solved “expeditiously” and “without the need for litigation.” Attorneys who represent victims and families of the crash at the Staten Island Ferry terminal — which killed 10 people and injured more than 70 — assailed the city’s move, saying it was an effort to derail lawsuits with outdated and seldom-used maritime laws. “In one breath they are saying they want to avoid litigation and want to be fair, but by filing for limitation, they are saying they want to shortchange the victims,” said Anthony F. Bisignano of Bosco Bisignano & Mascolo, a Staten Island firm that is representing 20 claimants so far. “That is a paltry amount to be shared by all the people who were injured or are family members of the deceased.” For the city to win a limitation of its liability, it will have to prove that only the ferry’s crew, and not supervisors, were to blame for the circumstances that led to the accident, according to maritime expert Paul S. Edelman of Kreindler & Kreindler. Bisignano and other attorneys said the city would have a difficult time proving this in light of questions being raised about the ferry’s operating procedures and safety rules. “They are going to have to prove that the upper echelon really had no knowledge of the circumstances that led to a collision like this,” Bisignano said. Cardozo said Monday the city had a good case for limiting its liability, though all the facts of the crash are not yet known. And he said requesting a limitation was not an attempt to shut out the victims, but a necessary move since the city faces “potentially huge” liability. “The comptroller has said he is in business to hear people’s claims and to be sure that people are being fairly compensated,” Cardozo said. “I think the comptroller will emphasize his discretion and I don’t think he will necessarily be limited by what we’ve done in court.” Cardozo stressed that settlement talks with Comptroller Thompson would be exploratory, and said attorneys and clients could walk away with no strings attached. He added that attorneys who successfully negotiate settlements with the city should charge their clients considerably less than a standard fee, usually one-third of the amount recovered. Bisignano said he found the request “reprehensible,” since litigation clearly would be necessary over the limitation of liability. Under federal maritime law, the owner of a vessel can seek consolidation of accident claims in federal court. The city’s liability figure is based on the vessel’s value after the crash, plus the craft’s tonnage. Kate O’Brien Ahlers, a spokeswoman for the Law Department, said the figure was determined by taking the boat’s value of $16 million, subtracting at least $3 million for repairs and then adding $1.4 million for its tonnage. That leaves a value of $14.4 million. Sanford A. Rubenstein, a Brooklyn attorney who represents an injured passenger, described the city’s maneuver as “unfortunate” and unlikely to succeed. “I believe that the city will fail in its attempt to limit the damages,” he said. “How can the city say they are not in privity with their own employees?” If the city does succeed in limiting its liability, the ship’s captain and crew could still face unlimited lawsuits. Those defendants, however, likely would not be able to pay substantial damages, making most claims against them moot. The city, which is being represented by admiralty law expert Freehill, Hogan & Mahar in Manhattan, filed its papers as a related matter to a ferry suit currently before Eastern District Chief Judge Edward R. Korman. Cardozo said total claims so far exceed $2 billion; plaintiffs attorneys, however, have emphasized that they are required to attach dollar amounts to notices of claim, and generally cite the top of the range.

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