The owner of a commuter ferry that struck a Manhattan dock on Jan. 9, injuring dozens of passengers, has turned to the same maritime law that shielded the owners of the Titanic.
SeaStreak LLC is relying on the Limitation of Liability Act, a federal statute dating to 1851, which protects ship owners from liability for losses incurred without their “privity or knowledge” and limits their exposure to the value of the ship and “pending freight.”
The law, now codified at 46 U.S.C. §§ 30501-30512, was intended to encourage the shipbuilding and shipping industries in light of the unforeseen hazards that could be encountered at sea. It applies to ships of all sizes: even motorboats and Jet Skis.
In its complaint filed Jan. 16 in federal court in Newark, SeaStreak seeks exoneration from any damages resulting from the crash or, in the alternative, limiting its liability to the value of the vessel — the SeaStreak Wall Street — claimed to be no more than $7.6 million. It posted a bond for that amount.
U.S. District Judge William Martini Jr. signed an order that day approving the valuation, requiring anyone with a claim to file it in that court by May 16, and staying any claims filed elsewhere. Claimants opposing the exoneration or limitation of liability must file answers to the complaint by the same deadline.
The SeaStreak Wall Street, carrying hundreds of passengers who boarded at the Atlantic Highlands terminal in New Jersey, was reportedly traveling faster than usual on Jan. 9 as it approached Pier 11 on the East River and slammed into the dock, gashing a hole in the bow and allegedly injuring several passengers.
Four passengers had filed claims as of Tuesday.
John Urbanowicz allegedly has not regained consciousness and remains in the intensive care unit at Columbia Presbyterian Hospital, where he was taken right after the accident, after suffering a fractured skull and jaw, brain contusions, eye injury and other harm. He and his wife Janet are asking for $45 million in damages, asserting that the crash was caused by negligence, recklessness and unseaworthy conditions. They assert that the ship was going too fast, utilized unsafe docking procedures and had an inadequately trained and supervised crew, among other allegations.
Desmond Sullivan alleges he was “violently thrown about,” resulting in injuries to his back and neck for which he was hospitalized and is still being treated. Sullivan claims the crash occurred because of negligence “within the privity and knowledge” of the company and its employees who allegedly failed to ensure the seaworthiness and adequacy of the vessel, to provide adequate navigational and propulsion equipment and other gear, to operate the vessel properly and to keep a proper and vigilant lookout.
Samantha Bremekamp, who is represented by the same attorney, is asking for $10 million, claiming she fractured her spine and injured her shoulder.
Anthony Lucia alleges unspecified orthopedic injuries and psychological and emotional trauma.
Urbanowicz, Bremekamp and Lucia, all represented by Norman Hobbie of Hobbie Corrigan & Bertucio in Eatontown, have filed answers to SeaStreak’s complaint, denying that the limitation applies and stating that even if it does, the company’s exposure exceeds $7.6 million.
They contend that under the flotilla doctrine, the value of all the ships that are part of the company’s fleet of ferries must be included. They further argue that an additional $420 for each ton of the vessel’s weight is required by the statute to cover claims of personal injury and death.
“We believe that the defendant SeaStreak is not entitled to the protection of the Limitation of Liability Act” and that the $7.6 million amount is “inadequate and inappropriate,” says Hobbie. “You’re talking about catastrophic, life-altering injures.”
He says he has investigators “on the ground interviewing people” who have uncovered information “indicating that the company and captain had knowledge that this boat was a problem.”
Hobbie says the value of four ferries in the SeaStreak fleet “used interchangeably to take passengers back and forth” should go into calculating the liability limitation.
Sullivan’s lawyer, Andrew Buchsbaum of Friedman James & Buchsbaum in New York, says the company’s complaint forces claimants to file quickly. It also puts them in federal court, where jury trial is historically not available in admiralty cases.
Buchsbaum calls the limitation act “a trap for the unwary,” adding “we’re going to be proceeding cautiously. In his view, the flotilla doctrine does not apply.
SeaStreak general counsel Thomas Wynne says the first claim came in the day of the accident and since then, the company has been reaching out to customers hoping to resolve matters.
He says the federal filing was meant to create a single forum where their claims can be tried by the same judge. The company chose the District of New Jersey as the venue because the vessel departed from here and most of the plaintiffs live here.
William Bennett III, of Blank Rome’s New York office, who represents SeaStreak, says some customers have contacted the company “to express their support and discuss resolving any small property damages, such as lost iPads.”
The National Transportation Safety Board is investigating the crash.
New York City sought to avail itself of the liability limitation for the 2003 Staten Island Ferry crash that killed 11 people and injured many more.
U.S. District Judge Edward Korman denied the petition on Feb. 26, 2007, because the city breached a rule requiring a second pilot in the pilot house to take over if the pilot became incapacitated, as happened there.
In October 1912, about six months after the Titanic sank, its owner, the White Star Line, filed a limitation-of-liability petition in the Southern District of New York, claiming the collision with the iceberg that destroyed the ship was an “inevitable accident.” Notices published in The New York Times set an April 15, 1913, end date for asserting claims. Hundreds were filed, totaling more than $16.6 million.
The case ended in July 1916 with a negotiated settlement in which White Star paid $665,000 to be divided among all claimants and U.S. District Judge Julius Mayer signed a final decree stating the company had no privity or knowledge and thus no liability.