Is Costa Concordia Captain Getting Attacked Unfairly?

Lipcon, Marguiles, Alsina & Winkleman, P.A

Costa CruisesOur maritime attorneys here at Lipcon, Margulies, Alsina & Winkleman, P.A. have talked at length about the tragic Costa Concordia accident that killed 32 people. Although two years have passed since the tragic crash, the disaster still seems fresh, not only in our minds, but especially in the minds of victims and those who lost loved ones in the wreck.

There have been countless explanations offered for the crash, but the predominant theory is that Concordia captain Francesco Schettino was to blame. Schettino was reportedly the one that ordered the last minute itinerary change that ultimately led to the ship’s demise. And he wasn’t the last man standing on the ship. But while Schettino’s actions are questionable, should he be getting the brunt of the blame? At this point, is he being attacked unreasonably?

Let’s take a look at the facts.

The Costa Concordia accident occurred on January 13, 2012. Schettino reportedly decided to make a last minute call to change the ship’s itinerary in order to perform a maneuver called a “salute” that would bring the vessel closer to shore. In doing so, the Concordia struck a large rock and capsized off the coast of Giglio.

After months of investigations, Schettino was charged with manslaughter and abandoning ship. Was the itinerary change necessary? No. There was no emergency reason why the vessel’s course had to be changed. When a captain, who is given the power to make such last minute calls by the cruise line, decides to make a change to a ship’s itinerary, they are required to consult with cartography maps to make sure there is nothing in the area that could lead to an accident.

According to the captain, there was no indication that there was a giant rock near the shore that could have damaged the vessel. Others say the reef was visible. At this point, it’s a he-said, she-said argument. According to the ship’s first officer, Ciro Ambrosio, Schettino had left his reading glasses in his cabin and kept asking him to check the radar for signs of trouble.  Also, Schettino admitted to turning off the ship’s navigation system and relying solely on his sight, a critical error.

Aside from this poor judgment call, Schettino allegedly abandoned ship before his passengers and crew were safely off. Though there is no law that states a captain should remain onboard, it is a well-known and time-honored practice. Schettino has told countless stories as to why he didn’t stay on the ship. He even said he was pushed into one of the lifeboats.

But while the allegations against him may or may not be true, he’s hardly the only one to blame for the Concordia accident and especially for the aftermath of the incident.

In actuality, five other crew members were also charged in connection with the crash. But while they were charged AND convicted, their sentences were suspended. The crew members, who all pleaded guilty to manslaughter, negligence and shipwreck, received varying prison sentences between 18 to 34 months. However, none of the seafarers will be spending any time behind bars.

As for the owner of the Concordia, Costa Crociere, S.p.A., a cruise company under the Carnival Corp. umbrella, a mere fine was issued that, in relation to the gravity of the accident, was meek. The cruise company was hit with a 1 million Euro administrative fine, which is but a mere dent in the company’s wallet. In paying the fine, Costa Crociere went from being a possible defendant in the case, to being a victim! The company is now considered a victim of Schettino’s actions because the company suffered a loss in the incident. Sure, most of the financial losses were insured – however, the Costa name has, in our opinion, suffered irreparable harm by being associated with one of the worst modern cruise ship disasters.

So, Schettino is now the only defendant in the case. He’s now looking at up to 20 years in prison if he’s found guilty, but because he’s the SOLE defendant in the case, he may get the brunt of the liability.  There’s no question that Italy is looking for a scapegoat!

However, despite the fact that it was reportedly his decision to change the itinerary, he is not the sole person to blame. Cruise lines shouldn’t allow captains to make non-emergency decisions without consulting them.. This is just further evidence of the dangers that go along with an industry remaining largely unregulated.  For example, if a plane wants to deviate from their flight pattern and itinerary – they consult an air traffic controller.  Why?  Because they have to!  The cruise industry is in need of regulation!  That bears repeating – THE CRUISE INDUSTRY IS IN NEED OF REGULATION!

Those who survived the Concordia crash recounted stories of the horrific evacuation experience. Survivors claimed crew members did not know what to do and were scrambling around, unable to even communicate with one another properly. As a result, the evacuation was chaotic.

Had the evacuation run smoothly, with crew members assisting passengers and helping to keep the situation under control, perhaps there wouldn’t have been any casualties. For this reason, the crew members who were unsure or unable to carry out an emergency evacuation quickly, safely and in an organized manner reflect on a company that failed to train its crew properly and failed to have adequate policies and procedures in place or enforced.  The buck stops with Costa, not Schettino!

Unfortunately, Costa’s failures are not unique to the cruise industry that remains largely unregulated.  We have repeatedly seen cruise lines fail to properly train their crew on how to handle a serious accident.   All crew members should have extensive training on several different types of emergencies.  Though there may be protocols in place, not all cruise companies take the time to really dedicate extensive training sessions for their workers, often, because this type of training takes a long time and is not cheap. The result? Crew members who have no idea what to do when disaster strikes. An improperly trained crew member who contributes to a serious maritime accident can not only be held accountable, but the cruise line itself can be held accountable if anyone is injured or killed because of their negligent actions.

Yet, even without proper safety training, the crew cannot be given an easy way out. Any crew member or person who is trying to apply for a crew member position should already have an idea of what to expect. Accidents on cruise ships are common, especially in the past few years, when it seems that there’s an accident or crime almost every week.(Although industry organizations like the Cruise Line International Association – CLIA – will spew statistics designed to minimize the impact of accident frequency by showing how prolific cruising has become.  The bottom line is, although the industry and demand for cruising has grown by leaps and bounds, the safety protocols and regulations have not caught up to the needs for safety aboard cruise ships.

The industry trend is to build larger ships and reduce the ratio of crew to passengers aboard those ships.  Fewer crew members means that those seamen must be able to handle an emergency with ease and help mollify passenger fear. Unfortunately, the Costa Concordia crash wasn’t one of those times.

In reality, several people should be standing next to Schettino in trial for their role in the crash. Now, Schettino has become “the face” of the accident. We’re not saying that he shouldn’t have this answer for this disaster, but in all honesty, he shouldn’t be the only one in criminal court, Costa and others should be there as well.