Judge won’t curb damages in ferry crash case

/ Source: The Associated Press

A federal judge on Monday denied the city’s request to limit the amount of damages from the Staten Island ferry crash that killed 11 people and injured dozens in one of the worst mass-transit disasters in city history.

The city had sought to cap civil claims to a total of $14.4 million — the value of the vessel Andrew J. Barberi — citing a 19th-century maritime statute. Scores of plaintiffs have sued the city for damages that lawyers say could reach billions of dollars.

“There are no more excuses,” said Kathy Healy, whose husband, John, died in the tragedy. “I’m hoping the city will step up to the plate and do the right thing.”

City officials said they were considering an appeal.

The Barberi slammed into a concrete pier on Oct. 15, 2003, after pilot Richard Smith, suffering from extreme fatigue and on painkillers, passed out at the helm. In a guilty plea in 2005, ferry director Patrick Ryan, the top-ranking city official charged in the crash, admitted he failed to implement or enforce a rule requiring two pilots during docking.

“The city’s failure to provide a second pilot or otherwise adopt a reasonable practice that addresses the issue of pilot incapacitation was plainly a substantial factor in causing the disaster,” wrote U.S. District Judge Edward Korman in Brooklyn. “Because this negligence is directly attributable to its director of ferry operations, the city cannot limit its liability to the value of the Barberi.”

Michael A. Cardozo, New York City corporation counsel, disagreed, saying the crash was unforeseeable.

“This was a terrible tragedy, and our hearts go out to those affected by the accident,” Cardozo said. “The accident occurred, however, because (Smith) took over the operation and navigation of the ferry when he was unfit to do so, and did not disclose that fact to anyone.”

The city has already settled some lawsuits.

Of the more than 180 claims filed after the crash, 119 have been settled for a total of $27.6 million and two were discontinued, city officials said. Sixty-five claims are pending.

Smith was sentenced to 18 months in prison. Ryan received a year and one day.