Cruise Ship Sinking: An Imminent Wave of Lawsuits to Come

Analysis

By Daniel Tovrov: Subscribe to Daniel's

January 17, 2012 1:07 PM EST

There are countless questions still surrounding the sinking of the Costa Concordia cruise ship near Giglio Island in Italy on Friday. The injured victims of the accident and the family members of those who died are demanding the answers to two: Who is responsible and how will they be held accountable?

"This is going to go down in history as one of the most interesting and horrible catastrophes at sea," John H. Hickey, a maritime trial attorney in Miami, told IBTimes. "We'll be talking about this in maritime community for long time."

The Concordia case is unique in its severity, and the only thing that's certain is that intense litigation will soon follow a rigorous police investigation. A class action suit has already been initiated by Codacons, an Italian consumer defense organization, and so far 70 passengers have already joined the suit.

"Our objective is to get each passenger at least $12,773 compensation for material damage and also for... the fear suffered, the holidays ruined and the serious risks endured," Codacons head Carlo Rienzi told the AFP.

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Because the ship never touched a port in the United States, all passengers regardless of their nationality will have to file suit at a court in Genoa, Italy. This is not part of any international law but rather written into the ticketing agreement for Costa.

"As a passenger, you sign a contract with the cruise company," Mark Murphy, the CEO of Travalliance, told IBTimes, noting that most contracts make it difficult for cruise-goers to receive financial compensation for anything other than injury or death.

"You don't have a lot of rights," he added.

But Italy has different laws from the United States, and passengers should be able to receive some recompense for both personal injury and for the inconvenience of a canceled vacation.

Additionally, crew members of the Concordia will be able to sue Costa and Carnival, which owns the Italian cruise company, although the crew members have a different set of rules. At least one Peruvian crew member died in the crash.

"In maritime law, everything depends on the status of the injured person," Hickey, who used to work as an attorney for Carnival, noted.

There is also a broader spectrum of the types of injuries covered in Italy, and so the number of people who get paid will be greater. However, the amount that each gets paid will probably be less in Italy than it would be in the U.S., Hickey said.

The amount that Carnival will have to pay is still an unknown.

The Concordia was ensured for about $500 million, which covers the price tag of the ship if it has to be scuttled. With a projected $90 million loss in revenue from the temporary loss of the Concordia from the Costa fleet, and with the public relations damage likely turning away future customers, Carnival will probably try to get in and out of court as fast and as cheaply as possible.

"Costa will definitely settle," Murphy said. "They will get to the table and figure out what they can do to make it right."

Guilty Parties

The Concordia's captain, Francesco Schettino is currently in police detention and will appear before a judge on multiple charges of manslaughter and abandoning ship on Tuesday. Since the accident, Costa and Carnival have been explicitly blaming the captain, saying he made an "unapproved, unauthorized" change of course.

On that fateful Friday, Schettino brought the Concordia five miles off route, reportedly so that he could give a fog horn-salute to the parents of the boat's maître d', who live on Giglio Island. He then scraped the ship's hull on rocks he didn't see, turned the boat into a harbor as it began to list over 50 degrees, and finally fled the sinking vessel on a raft.

It also emerged on Tuesday that Schettino disobeyed orders from an Italian coast guard officer who demanded that the captain return to the ship to help with the rescue efforts. Instead, Schettino hailed a taxi and told the driver to "get me as far away from here as possible," according to reports.

Regardless of whether or not Schettino is found guilty of any of the charges filed against him, passengers and crew will be able to sue him for damages as well. However, the captain is likely covered by the boat's insurance plan, and if he weren't, it is improbable that he has the funds to cover the fines.

"The cruise line is responsible for his actions," said Hickey. "They hired him, trained him and monitored him. Do they even do personality tests before hiring?"

"There were so many points of negligence in terms of the captain and the cruise line," Hickey added.

There were about 3,200 passengers and 1,000 crew members on board the Concordia when it went down on Friday night. Rescuers are still searching for 24 missing persons. Eleven bodies have been recovered from the wreck.

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