On the morning of Jan. 9, 2013, a SeaStreak commuter ferry carrying more than 300 passengers crashed into a pier near Wall Street in Lower Manhattan. More than a hundred people were injured, and in the days and weeks that followed, 46 passengers would sue the ferry owner in federal court.
When the high-speed commuter ferry collided with Pier 11 in the East River, Thomas Wynne, vice president and general counsel of SeaStreak, was in London in talks to renew the company’s marine insurance. At the Corporate Counsel Symposium, an event put on Friday by the New York City Bar Association, Wynne recounted how he navigated the crisis, both from a public opinion perspective and a legal one.
“When [a crisis] actually happens, I think it’s important that you run into the flames,” Wynne said on the panel Friday. “The tendency would be to hire it out. But you know your people, you know your operations better than anybody else.”
One aspect of being able to deal with a crisis is proper training before the disaster occurs, Wynne said. In Wynne’s case, this meant looking to Bruce Hennes, managing partner of crisis management and communications firm Hennes Communications and a co-panelist at Friday’s event, to help with media training for ferry captains and chief engineers and to help Wynne and the company’s CEO practice being peppered with questions in front of a camera.
Not long after the crash, Wynne, who had made it a rule at the time that he would be SeaStreak’s media spokesman in the event of an incident, was faced with a barrage of calls from reporters. “I wasn’t anticipating that something would happen at the foot of Wall Street in the largest media capital of the world,” Wynne said. “It was a bad situation. But fortunately, I had done some training, and the people I work for believe in training and believe in allowing us to spend money and prepare for these types of things.”
Wynne added that it’s critical to do industry-specific emergency response training. For him, that involves what’s known as Qualified Individual training as outlined by the Oil Pollution Act of 1990. “We had the [National Transportation Safety Board], we had the [U.S.] Coast Guard all over us, and to be able to walk in there with my QI certificate … they step back and say, ‘OK, that’s fine, we’ll let you into the room, we’ll let you help manage the situation.’”
Forging relationships with key players and relying on those already formed was also invaluable in the aftermath of the crash, Wynne said. Shortly after learning of the incident, for instance, Wynne explained he was limited in what he could do from London, so he called on an outside attorney in New York to go and quickly assess the situation and speak with law enforcement. And having a certain level of trust with the claims adjuster for the company meant not having “to worry about convincing him about what I wanted to do,” Wynne noted.
Another element of the response involved acting quickly to get out ahead of litigation and staying involved throughout, Wynne said.
One week after the crash, SeaStreak filed a complaint in the U.S. District Court for the District of New Jersey, in Newark, looking to limit the company’s liability to $7.6 million, based on a federal maritime law. The statute limits a company’s liability to the value of the ship and any cargo if the company didn’t have “privity or knowledge” of the acts that gave rise to the accident. A deadline to file claims against SeaStreak was set by the federal judge handling the the case for May 2013.
By this date, more than 60 of the 110 claims filed were settled directly with the claimants, Wynne said. For those that remained, Wynne explained that he attended depositions and ensured the lawyers for the plaintiffs that he was available for settlement discussions. Eventually, one settlement was reached and then more followed.
“I don’t feel like I got a wonderful deal on any of the cases. I think we paid fair money, which is what our customers were entitled to,” Wynne said. “But the long and short of it is, we wrapped up every single one of these cases within two years. None of them went to trial.”