Ferries are also commercial vessels and they suffer the same indignities as their workboat brethren. Thus, ferries are largely treated by 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 the Seastreak Wall Street commuter ferry in lower Manhattan, numerous maritime legal issues arise.
From the boardroom perspective, in addition to the concern for the health of the passengers and crew, there is also likely a concern for protecting the corporate entity that owns and operates the ferry. These concerns 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 meeting the U.S. Coast Guard’s demands for crew interviews and documents.
The vessel’s insurer will also appoint attorneys and several companies will tell their own private legal counsel to ride shotgun and provide updates on the insurer’s decisions and efforts. Consideration will also be given to the merits of filing a shipowner’s limitation of liability action. In this action, 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 2003 Staten Island Ferry disaster.
For the injured passengers, they will likely seek compensation for pain and suffering and payment for medical expenses, lost wages and other damages. In general, vessels owe passengers a duty of reasonable care under the circumstances.
The cause of the Seastreak ferry accident is under investigation. The terminal owner might be concerned about preserving evidence that shows the pier was suitable and that there were no obstructions or defects at the time of docking. If reports of mechanical failure are accurate, component manufacturers, installers and naval architects who signed off on the ferry’s repowering last year may all touch base with their attorneys for guidance on preserving documents and preparing a defense if one is required.