[JURIST] A federal judge Monday refused [PDF text] to apply a 1851 maritime law [text] that would have limited the possible damages for victims of the 2003 Staten Island ferry crash [Wikipedia backgrounder] to $14.4 million. The city of New York argued that the law, which was written to encourage investments in shipbuilding, should be applied to limit the ship owner's liability to the boat's value after subtracting repair costs. US District Judge Edward Korman [official profile] disagreed, however, saying the law should not apply if the city was negligent in the accident. Korman ruled the city was negligent in failing to follow a city rule requiring two captains to be in the ferry's pilot station when the boat is moving.
The assistant captain operating the boat at the time had blacked out, causing the ferry to crash into the Staten Island pier, killing 11 passengers and injuring dozens more. Richard Smith pleaded guilty [JURIST report] to 11 counts of seaman's manslaughter in 2004 and was sentenced to 18 months in jail. Patrick Ryan, the city's former ferry operations director, also pleaded guilty to seaman's manslaughter in 2005 and admitted he had not enforced the two-pilot rule. He received a 366-day prison sentence. The ruling opens New York City up to to tens of millions of dollars in potential payouts to victims and their families. Only two-thirds of the 186 claims [JURIST report] have so far been settled at a total of $27.6 million. The city said it will consider appealing the court's ruling. Tuesday's New York Times has more.