Most of the tweeting and discussion about the Costa Concordia is in languages other than English, so it strikes me that this may not be a big deal in the U.S. However, reading about the capsized cruise ship, the Costa Concordia, raised an interesting question. Legally speaking, what is a captain’s duty when his or her ship is sinking? Does he or she have to go down with the ship? Coordinate an evacuation? Do captains have to do anything but get off the boat?
The Concordia’s captain, Francesco Schettino, ordered an abandon ship after he deviated from his course near Giglio, and island near Tuscany, and struck something (either a reef or a rock) underwater.
After the collision the ship began taking on water and severely listing to the point of capsizing, and apparently, in setting the example he wanted his passengers to follow, the captain was one of the first few to get off of the ship. This drew the ire of the Italian Coast Guard which was attempting to aid in the rescue of the nearly 4,200 passengers and crew. [Story and video here]
Captain Schettino is currently in custody facing criminal charges for manslaughter and has been firmly and securely thrown under the bus by the CEO of Costa Cruises, Peter Luigi Foschi, when he said, “the company will be close to the captain and will provide him all the necessary assistance, but we need to acknowledge the facts and we cannot deny human error.” [Presstv.ir]
This question of a captain’s responsibilities during a wreck was tackled by an attorney and U.S. Coast Guard captain, Craig Allen, who was commanding a ship at the time of his article, who wrote a piece for the University of Washington Law Review. His article came on the heels of an incident similar to the Concordia disaster, the sinking of the M/V Oceanos, where there was an explosion in the engine room, the captain abandoned ship more or less first, and the shp’s entertainers subsequently took over and coordinated the rescue of all of the 571 passengers on board.
Allen points to both military and civilian captains’ duties in his piece.
We can quote Allen for the military section thusly:
U.S. Navy Regulations direct commanding officers of ships suffering major casualties to remain with their ship “as long as necessary.” Should it become necessary to abandon ship… Article 0852 specifically states that a commanding officer is to be the last one to leave. [Allen, U. of Wash. Law Rev.]
So, there you have it, in the military a captain does not have to go down with the ship, but he or she damn well better get off last, or else they will spend some time in the brig.
For civilians it is a little different. Allen notes that there is the Standby Act, which requires captains of ships that have collided to remain at the site of the collision and assist each other, however the true authority is the Merchant Marine Officers’ Handbook.
This handbook is not law, but is the cornerstone for all merchant officer training, and three items regarding a captain’s responsibilities while the ship is sinking pop out. First, the captain must be the last man off the ship, must use all reasonable efforts to save everything possible, and lastly, is responsible for the safe return of the crew.
Again, there is a responsibility to stick around.
Now, were Captain Shettino subject to U.S. law, the Merchant Marine Officers’ Handbook would come into play, but his only realy punishments pursuant to that handbook would be the loss of his captain’s license and the loss of a good deal of employment opportunities.
However, have no fear, because captains are responsible for the wellbeing of the passengers and crew on a ship under their command, they are exposed to a good deal of liability. They have a duty to act responsibly in their command and the instant they deviate from what would be considered good and reasonable captaining they face liability similar in nature to legal or medical malpractice, not to mention criminal sanctions if their acts injure someone or violate international or local maritime law.
With the death toll from the Concordia at 11 people with 24 still missing Schettino will likely be spending some time away and will no doubt have to answer for his actions in a multitude of lawsuits.
Mariners from Craig Allen to Oliver Hazard Perry likely would believe there is some justice to that, because while no one expected Schettino to die for his ship, everyone expected him to at least try to keep his ship afloat.
[The blog, The Sinking of The Oceanos, had some extra details on the sinking and will likely have a few more updates on the matter. This blog is run by a survivor of the Oceanos incident and has some interesting perspective on what it's like to be in a shipwreck as well as a first hand account of what happened aboard the Oceanos. Give it a read.]