Ferries are commercial vessels, too. They suffer the same indignities as their workboat brethren and are largely treated by the maritime law like any other commercial vessel. No matter its stripes, when a commercial vessel is involved in a casualty, such as the recent hard landing of a New York commuter ferry that landed scores of passengers in the hospital, numerous maritime legal issues arise.
From the boardroom perspective, and setting aside the genuine concern for the health of the passengers and crew, there is likely a concern for protecting the corporate entity that owns and operates the ferry. These concerns will involve investigating the accident's cause, coordinating with the vessel's insurer, responding to the requirements imposed by law such as crewmember drug and alcohol testing, and treating the U.S. Coast Guard's demands for personnel interviews and documents. The vessel's insurer will appoint attorneys and many companies also instruct their own private legal counsel to ride shotgun and provide updates on the insurer's decisions and efforts. There'll also probably be consideration given to the merits of filing a Limitation of Liability action whereby a vessel owner without knowledge of the cause of the incident can seek to limit its liability to the post-casualty value of the vessel. Where appropriate and with some exceptions, this action can force all of the claims into a single, federal courtroom. You may recall that the City of New York elected this course in the context of the 2003 Staten Island ferry disaster.
For the injured passengers, they will likely want to seek compensation to somehow remedy the pain and suffering and to pay for medical expenses, lost wages and other damages. Generally speaking vessels owe their passengers a duty of reasonable care under the circumstances. Attorneys representing ferry passengers will worry issues such as whether a passenger's failure to follow seating instructions may make their client contributory negligence, or, whether there were other vessels involved, or, whether a municipality owns the terminal where the ferry docked and, if so, the length of time (usually pretty quick) by which they must give the municipality notice of their client's claim.
The cause of the South Street Seaport ferry accident is not clear, but other entities are no doubt also speaking with legal counsel. The terminal owner might be concerned about preserving evidence showing the pier was suitable and that there were no obstructions or defects at the time of docking. If reports of the ferry's jet drives being swapped for rudders and propellers are accurate, you might find the component manufacturers, installers and naval architects who perhaps blessed the change all touching base with their admiralty counsel for guidance on preserving documents and preparing a defense if one is required.
It seems like Manhattan ferries move an awful lot of passengers without incident. Hopefully, this ferry accident will not curtail a thriving waterborne industry and will, instead, only make future passages safer.
By John Fulweiler
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