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NY court rejects inspector liability in capsizing

ALBANY, N.Y. — New York’s top court on Thursday rejected damages claims against state inspectors who continually recertified a tour boat for 48-passenger capacity before it overturned in 2005, drowning 20 people on a fall foliage tour.

The Court of Appeals unanimously ruled that the state generally isn’t liable for ‘‘the negligent performance’’ of government functions unless it has some ‘‘special duty’’ to those hurt.

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Federal investigators afterward said the 40-foot Ethan Allen should have been limited to 14 passengers. The boat tipped over in clear, sunny weather, sending 47 tourists and the captain into Lake George. The National Transportation Safety Board concluded that ‘‘insufficient stability,’’ partly from the passenger load, was the probable cause of the accident.

‘‘Although the law is clear, the upshot is that, regardless of any negligence on the part of the state, the victims of this disastrous wreck are essentially left without adequate remedy,’’ Chief Judge Jonathan Lippman wrote for the unanimous court. ‘‘The Legislature currently has a proposal before it to require public vessels to carry marine protection and indemnity insurance. We note that such a requirement — had it existed — might have been able to provide a modicum of relief here.’’

The six judges noted that the Legislature, even in amending state Navigation Law after the disaster to impose more safety standards, didn’t establish a private right to sue the government.

They reversed a midlevel court and upheld the state’s claim of sovereign immunity in carrying out these governmental functions.

Since the disaster, the state has increased the average weight per passenger used to determine capacity from 140 pounds to 174 pounds, reflecting Americans’ upward weight trend.

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