Would Public Opinion of Costa Concordia Captain Be Different if He Hadn’t Abandoned Ship?

Lipcon, Marguiles, Alsina & Winkleman, P.A

Costa CruisesNearly a year and a half after one of the great maritime disasters in history, many questions remain.  Perhaps chief among those questions is why would this Captain so quickly abandon his ship, his crew and the thousands of passengers?  Sadly, we may never get a real answer, particularly because legally, the Captain abandoning the ship is not necessarily a crime.

The Costa Concordia capsized off the coast of Giglio, Italy on January 12, 2012, yet the memories of the tragic cruise ship accident remain engrained in the minds of those who survived and those who lost a loved one. Like a ghost, the Concordia continues to haunt victims and all who pass by the shores of Giglio, where the vessel remains in its watery grave to this day, serving as a reminder that safety should always be the top priority of each cruise company.

Although several people were accused of contributing to the accident, one man has seemed to take on the brunt of the blame since it was, after all, his decision to alter the vessel’s course. Former Concordia captain Francesco Schettino has been at the center of all media and legal attention in the case, and for good reason.  It was Schettino who decided at the last minute to change the ship’s course in order to perform a maneuver called a “salute,” which brought the vessel too close to shore, where it crashed into a giant rock.

But while the decision itself was enough to merit criticism, what happened in the wake of the crash is what sealed Schettino’s fate in the eyes of victims, the media and attorneys. Aside from the fact that survivors recounted a nightmarish evacuation experience, with crew members speaking in different languages and unable to properly communicate with each other and furthering the chaos following the accident, Schettino abandoned ship before all Concordia passengers were safely off the vessel.

A total of 32 people died in the Costa Concordia cruise ship accident and perhaps their lives may have been spared if Schettino had done his part to oversee the safe execution of an evacuation plan. Yet, he fled from the disabled vessel, leaving behind frightened passengers and seemingly incompetent crew members to fend for themselves.

But why exactly is it such a big deal that Schettino abandoned ship before everyone else?

There is a general consensus and centuries old belief in the maritime world that a ship’s captain must be the last to evacuate a ship in the event of an emergency. But is there an actual seafaring law that requires captains to remain onboard until all others have evacuated or is it just a myth?

In reality, there is no law that requires a ship’s captain to be the last to leave a disabled vessel. It is merely a form of etiquette that has been practiced throughout the years by seafarers and has grown to become customary.

It makes sense for the captain to be the last to leave his ship if solely because of the fact that he is the main person in charge of the vessel. The captain assumes responsibility of a ship, its crew and its passengers and has the last say in everything that goes on shipboard. This same responsibility was imparted upon Schettino, which gave him the ability to change the Concordia’s course at the last minute without requiring the approval of Concordia operators.

But as the popular saying goes, “With great power comes great responsibility,” and responsibility is exactly what Schettino lacked.

Because he was in command of the Concordia, it was his responsibility to direct the evacuation of all onboard and ensure their safety. He did a terrible job in this regard. Perhaps things might have turned out differently if Schettino had stayed onboard to oversee the evacuation and make sure crew members were organized and calm. This, unfortunately, is something we will never know. What we do know, however, is that there are a lot of angry people who are pointing the finger at Schettino, if anything for his sheer lack of seamanship.

Schettino has been dubbed a “coward” by many and had he done his intrinsic duty as the Concordia’s captain and stayed onboard the vessel until the very last person was safely on a lifeboat heading to shore, maybe the public’s opinion of him would be a little less severe.

Naturally, one man can’t oversee the evacuation of over 4,000 people by himself. This is something that a maritime industry professional fully understands. However, this isn’t something the public usually comprehends, especially following an accident that results in fatalities.

Schettino’s trial is currently underway and his fate now rests in the hands of Italian Judge Giovanni Puliatti. The former captain has been charged with manslaughter and abandoning ship, but while he may very well face challenges in surpassing the manslaughter charges, he may likely walk away from the abandoning ship charge because he technically didn’t break any maritime laws in that regard and there really isn’t anything he can be punished with.

He certainly wouldn’t be the first captain to be acquitted of abandoning ship. In 1991, an explosion onboard the Greek cruise ship Oceanos resulted in the need to evacuate, but instead of passenger safety being a concern, the majority of the ship’s crew members fled before passengers even got a chance to find their muster station. And among the first to abandon the vessel was the ship’s captain, Yiannis Avaranas. Like Schettino, Avaranas was accused of abandoning ship, but the charges were dropped in a London court and he was even allowed to resume work as cruise ship captain.

If Schettino does get acquitted, it wouldn’t be all that shocking. After all, horrific accidents and crimes occur on cruise ships each and every day, but only a handful of them are reported and an even smaller number of people are actually held accountable. For this reason, it is critical that anyone involved in an incident at sea consult with an experienced cruise ship accident lawyer who understands maritime law and who will determine the best approach for filing a personal injury or negligence case.  Although there is a chance that Schettino may not go down for criminal charges, he should certainly be held accountable for his negligence in failing to ensure the safety of those onboard the Concordia.