MS Sea Diamond Captain Gets 12 Year Prison Sentence for Shipwreck; Does Similar Fate Await Concordia Captain?

Lipcon, Marguiles, Alsina & Winkleman, P.A

Justice ScaleThe Costa Concordia capsizing accident has been making headlines for the past year and a half since 32 people were killed and dozens of others were injured following the captain’s decision to change course at the last minute in order to perform a maneuver known as a “salute” that brings the ship close to shore. This move caused the Concordia to strike a giant rock, which created a gash in the vessel’s hull and led it to partially sink off the coast of Giglio, Italy in January, 2012.

Schettino awaits his fate in court, but given the nature of similar cruise ship accidents and their respective trials, our maritime lawyers are left to wonder: Will the former Concordia captain find leniency or will he be spending the next several years of his life in prison?

Cruise lines are required to ensure their crew members are knowledgeable and capable of handling emergency situations, but according to Concordia victims’ accounts of the accident, there was nothing short of pure chaos onboard the Concordia as the ship was sinking. Crew members were unable to communicate with one another, running around nervously without organizing a viable escape plan, and were not very attentive to the needs of the passengers.

Schettino has suffered the brunt of the accusations for abandoning his ship, passengers and crew before everyone was safely off the ship. He has already changed his story several times, giving excuses for abandoning the ship, the latest of which has Schettino claiming he was accidentally thrown off the ship and couldn’t do anything about it – except escape of course.

Trials for both the captain of the vessel, Francesco Schettino, and five other crew members have already begun, but much to the dismay of victims, surviving loved ones of the deceased, jail sentences were suspended for all five crew members, despite being found guilty of manslaughter. In an equally shocking decision, the owner of Costa Cruises, Costa Crociere, S. p.A. was completely exonerated of all responsibility with the incident after paying a 1 million Euro administrative fine. Costa Crociere will not only escape liability for the accident in terms of having to offer victims compensation for their injuries or losses, but it will not be facing any criminal charges whatsoever. In fact, Costa Crociere has joined the lawsuit against the captain and the crew members as a victim who lost a ship, instead of a cruise company that failed to protect those onboard against harm.

This leaves Schettino as the sole defendant in the Costa Concordia trial. If found guilty, he may face several years in prison and may never return to work as a cruise ship captain. However, because of the fact that the abandoning ship charge is more a question of moral etiquette than an actual crime, he may just be able to escape conviction after all. And if so, he wouldn’t be the first.

Back in 1991, an explosion onboard the Greek cruise ship Oceanos resulted in an evacuation. But instead of passengers being the top priority, the majority of the ship’s crew – including the captain – fled before some passengers were even able to reach their emergency muster stations. Capt. Yiannis Avarana was charged with abandoning ship, just like Schettino, but the charges were later dropped and he eventually found work as a cruise ship captain once more.

However, the case could swing in the opposite direction and Schettino may find himself in jail.

A recent case involving another cruise accident has finally reached a turning point – six years after the incident – and may shed some light on what Capt. Schettino’s fate in court might be.

A Greek court has convicted several seamen and company officials following the sinking of the MS Sea Diamond cruise ship near Santorini over six years ago. The accident occurred in April 2007, when the Sea Diamond, operated by Louis Hellenic Cruises, crashed into a reef off of Santorini and ran aground. Over 1,600 people were onboard the Sea Diamond and had only a few hours to evacuate before the vessel sank. Several passengers sustained injuries while two passengers were never recovered and are presumed dead. The ship is still submerged under water.

Among the charges against the seamen were negligence causing a shipwreck, breaching international safety regulations and environmental pollution.

Nine of 13 defendants were sentenced in court last Wednesday for their role in the cruise ship sinking accident. However, just like with the Concordia crew, few of these defendants will actually spend any time in jail after several sentences were completely suspended – despite the fact that the court discovered three of the defendants had actually acted with intent.

But that’s not all. Four seamen were completely acquitted of their charges: the first engineer officer, chief officer, chief steward and the cabin manager.

Meanwhile, the Sea Diamond captain received the strictest sentence of all – 12 years and two months in prison and a €8,000 fine – for causing the cruise ship accident, negligence resulting in manslaughter and marine pollution. An employee of DNV (Det Norske Veritas), an independent foundation that deemed the Sea Diamond seaworthy, was sentenced to eight years in prison, the second strictest sentence.

Following the verdict, Louis Hellenic Cruises said that it would appeal the decisions, but at least victims and their loved ones can breathe a sigh of relief that two people will actually serve prison time for their negligence in maintaining the safety of the ship.

And that’s what it all boils down to – safety. Schettino should have considered safety of all onboard his vessel when he made the decision to bring the Concordia too close to shore. Moreover, all other cruise line officials should consider improving their safety features and protocols, from performing more thorough investigations on their vessels to ensure all equipment is running properly, to training their crew members to perform better during emergency situations, to increasing sanitation standards.

Cruise ship safety is a product of several components that must all be in place in order to prevent disaster. The vessel itself must be in completely efficient condition to sail, all equipment must be thoroughly inspected, crews must be trained, emergency generators and backup systems must be in place, and solid evacuation strategies must also be devised. If just one of these features is off, the lives of all onboard can be jeopardized.

From the outside, a cruise ship just looks like a big floating hotel filled with tons of fun activities and the opportunity to explore new worlds. But when you take a closer look into the world beyond the portholes, there lies a world where negligence and even criminal activity reign supreme.

Not all the victims of cruise ship accidents and crimes are able to obtain justice for their pain and suffering, but it’s important that whenever an incident occurs onboard a vessel or ashore that results in an injury, disappearance, death, or crime, victims understand that they have the right to consult with a maritime attorney for assistance in filing a claim and protecting their rights.