New York ferry accident: Legal concerns

Ferries suffer the same indignities as their workboat brethren and are largely treated by the maritime law like any other commercial vessel.

When a commercial vessel is involved in a casualty, such as yesterday’s hard landing of the New York commuter ferry Seastreak Wall Street in Lower Manhattan that resulted in numerous injuries, several maritime legal issues arise.

For the company, there is likely a concern for protecting the corporate entity that owns and operates the ferry. These concerns involve investigating the cause of the accident, coordinating with the vessel’s insurer, responding to the requirements imposed by law such as crew drug and alcohol testing, and meeting the U.S. Coast Guard’s demands for personnel interviews and documents. The vessel’s insurer will appoint attorneys and other companies will also have their own private legal counsel 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. In this move, 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. This action can force all of the claims into a single, federal courtroom. You may recall that the City of New York took this course in the context of the 2003 Staten Island Ferry disaster.

The injured passengers will likely 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.

The cause of the Manhattan ferry accident is under investigation, but other entities are likely speaking with legal counsel. The terminal owner might be concerned about preserving evidence showing that the pier was suitable and that there were no obstructions or defects at the time of docking. If the ferry’s new rudders and propellers had anything to do with the allision, 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.

Each day, Manhattan ferries move a lot of passengers without incident. Hopefully, this ferry accident will not curtail a thriving industry and will only make future passages safer.

About the author

John K. Fulweiler

John K. Fulweiler is a licensed mariner and experienced admiralty attorney. He represents individuals and companies throughout the East and Gulf Coasts and has recently taken command of his own maritime law firm. He enjoys navigating the choppy waters of the maritime law, but readily admits to missing life on the water. He can be reached at . His website is

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