Ferry owner moves to limit crash liability

The owner of the ferry that crashed near the South Street Seaport last month has taken steps to shield the company from having to pay out big bucks in the face of tens of millions of dollars in claims from injured passengers.

In a little-noticed court filing last month in Newark, N.J., federal court, Seastreak LLC., owner of high-speed catamaran ferry Seastreak Wall Street, said the company wasn't negligent in operating the vessel and thus should only have to pay out $7.6 million in damages, an amount representing the value of the ferry after it rammed into a dock on Jan. 9. More than 80 passengers were injured in the accident, some seriously.

The owners are invoking a 19th-century federal limitation of law liability law that caps the exposure of vessel owners whose ships are involved in accidents. In court papers, Seastreak officials said the ferry, which some experts said was originally worth $10 million, is now valued at $7.6 million after the accident.

The company made the legal move just days after the accident and at a time when a number of passengers, all from New Jersey, began filing claims under federal maritime law for their injuries. In one case, passenger John Urbanowicz is said have remained unconscious for weeks after the crash. Urbanowicz and his wife, Janet, alleged that the vessel owner was negligent and are claiming damages of $45 million from the crash, court papers stated. Close to a dozen passengers have filed claims in federal court over the accident.

As part of a National Transportation Safety Board investigation, the captain of the Seastreak said that his attempt to slow the vessel was foiled because of mechanical failure. The captain said the reverse thruster did not operate as anticipated, according to the NTSB.

The NTSB is expected to come out with a full report on the accident, William R. Bennett, an attorney for Seastreak, said Monday.

Unexpected mechanical failure could be important for Seastreak's effort to limit its exposure, said Manhattan maritime attorney Jack Hession.

"The owner may have made a prima facie case for limitation, where they couldn't throw thrusters in reverse," said Hession, who isn't representing any passenger in the case.

"It looks to me like a long fight, with good lawyers on both sides," said Hession.

As a practical matter, Seastreak's owners are holding a sword over the head of passengers to encourage early settlements rather than risk having the damages limited by the court, Hession said.

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