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Legal battles over ferry crash

NBC News corespondent Rehema Ellis reports on how New York City wants to limit damage claims awarded to victims.
/ Source: TODAY

In the past 25 years the amount of cash settlements paid out by New York City has risen an unbelievable 2300 percent — $500 million was spent last year alone. Now the city is trying to prevent the Staten Island ferry crash from being a financial windfall for its victims. NBC News correspondent Rehema Ellis reports.

Nerly two months after losing his legs in the deadly Staten Island ferry crash, Paul Esposito returns home.

But as Esposito begins his long path to recovery, the battle over how much money he and other victims of the crash should receive highlights a growing concern in the nation’s legal system — over escalating damage awards.

In New York, the ferry crash could pit victims against one another: from survivors — to the families of the 10 people who died.

Already, more than 100 plaintiffs have notified New York City they intend to sue for nearly $2 billion.

But the city wants to cap its total liability way below that at around $14 million, invoking an old maritime law limiting damages to the value of the ship.

Attorney Anthony Bisagnano represents nearly 30 clients seeking damages.

“The thought of trying to divvy up amongst all these people that type of money is something that’s not fair, is not sound and is not something that’s being accepted by our clients.”

But New York City counsel Michael Cardozo argues excessive damage awards come at a cost. “Every dollar that the city has to pay out in an additional claim means either decreased services or increased taxes.”

Further straining the legal system — increasing claims for damages from people who suffered no physical injuries at all.

One woman is reportedly seeking $200 million for losing sleep.

Of Bisignano’s clients, approximately half were never physically hurt — but they’re seeking damages for emotional distress.

“Although you physically were not injured and you were fortunate enough to make it to the back of the boat, you witnessed a carnage that would be comparable to being in a war.”

Court TV host and former judge Catherine Crier is highly critical of law suits solely based on emotional suffering.

“The law is not the good fairy and it’s not the lottery,” she says.

In her book, Crier argues you can’t put a price on emotional pain.

“The law is supposed to compensate for real injuries and we don’t know what the value of someone’s psychological injury is. And so I think we’re asking the law to do something it really was never meant to do.”

The city is now struggling to redefine what it’s meant to do.

“A terrible accident occurred here and people should be fairly compensated, but we have to gain some control over this,” says Cardozo.

A ferry out of control, leaving the New York City justice system to determine what’s feasible and what’s fair.