Monday, January 16, 2012

Has the Costa Concordia's captain been hung out to dry?

I've been following some of the news coverage regarding the Italian cruise ship Costa Concordia which collided with off-shore rocks and keeled over.  The last death count I saw was 6, but I'm not sure if everyone has yet been accounted for.  A tragedy, without a doubt.

And what caused it?  Well, the cruise line has told us exactly whose fault it was, laying the blame solely and directly on the captain.  Apparently, he took the ship off of its designated course without authorization, causing the collision when attempting a "stunt", and then abandoned ship ahead of the rest of his passengers, contrary to the 'sacred duties' of every ship captain.

Something has seemed odd to me about the coverage, and that's that this finger-pointing seems to have begun too quickly.

Even now, it's still just "preliminary investigations" which point to human error in the collision, and the reports of the captain leaving the ship too early seem pretty fluffy, in large part because it doesn't appear to distinguish between what should be two distinct aspects of the operation:  Emergency evacuation, conducted by the ship's officers and crew, getting everyone off the ship who can be evacuated; and search and rescue, conducted from other vessels or from dry land (as dry land was just about a hundred meters away), involving searchers with additional safety equipment trying to access people who may be trapped in submerged compartments of the ship.

In an earlier report, I saw commentary about how the captain's insistence that he waited until everyone was off the ship was obviously untrue, given that survivors were subsequently found and rescued by divers.  Now, there are criticisms that the captain left long before the rescue operation was over.

The coverage I've read paints the picture of careless and non-chalant captain piloting his ship into the rocks then pushing his way through women and children to get to the first lifeboat.  I don't necessarily buy that image, because I know that it's far too early to reach these conclusions.

How was the accident caused?  This will be the subject of weeks (perhaps months) of investigation, and probably a full inquiry in addition to potential criminal proceedings against the captain.  To squarely say "human error" so quickly is impossible - it is, at minimum, an oversimplification - and tells me that the cruiseline is using the captain as a scapegoat, fairly or not.  Perhaps it's even true that the captain took the ship off course, and perhaps also true that the deviation was not for a compelling reason, but even if those are true then there are other questions about why the rock formation was not known or detected.  (The captain says that the rocks weren't on the charts and that the ship's sensors didn't pick them up.  If that's true, then there should have been no reason for the captain to be aware of any danger in his actions.)  Ships cannot and should not be reliant on exact predetermined courses to avoid hazards, as deviations will be necessary in some cases, and should have the necessary charts, equipment, and expertise on board to avoid hazards.

Human error means pulling the ship off its predetermined course without regard for potential hazards.  But a ship's captain presumably should have the skill set to safely plot an alternate course, relying on navigational charts and other safety sensors, and if the crash is caused by a failure of those, then that's less the captain's mistake than it is a lack of appropriate resources and failure of equipment.  I'm not saying that I think the blame falls any particular way; I'm just saying that it's too soon to tell.

When should the captain have left?  And when did he leave?  Reading the commentaries, you would think that the captain is obliged to stay on board the ship until every last man, woman and child is accounted for.  Under these circumstances, that would mean that the captain should still be sitting in the command centre of the listing ship.  Which would be silly.  (Nota bene:  The ship is not sinking.  It listed over and became grounded.  Parts of the ship are submerged, but parts of it - including the superstructure - are not, and do not appear to be in any imminent risk of doing so.  Sitting in the command centre waiting for the evac to be complete would not be a noble sacrifice; it would be a waste of time.)

Yes, when evacuating the passengers and crew, the captain should be coordinating to the end.  But when the passengers stop coming and there are no more to be found in accessible areas of the ship, and when other vessels arrive to render aid or a land-base staging area for rescue operations is established, it is far more practical for search and rescue efforts to be coordinated from elsewhere, rather than conducted by the captain and his crew using resources on the ship.  The captain, with his knowledge of the ship, is going to be far more valuable in the rescue op staging area than in his sideways command centre.  They can send rescue divers, with the equipment and training necessary to conduct the rescues, rather than sending Josh Lucas on a heroic suicide mission into the murky depths to save whomever he can.

When did he leave?  It isn't clear.  Perhaps there were still thousands of people evacuating the ship when the captain boarded his lifeboat.  That would pretty clearly be a problem.  But it's less than clear from any of the reports that this is what happened.

What is clear is that the cruiseline has already decided that it will use the captain as a scapegoat.  That whether or not the captain is at fault, it will try to salvage its reputation by saying that this catastrophe was the fault of one unstable individual and that their cruiseline is safe again because he isn't there.

I don't know the details of Italian law.  They have a very different legal system from us.  In Ontario, I would be very concerned about this kind of scapegoating:  Employers should step out in front of this kind of criticism and defend their employees until - at minimum - the investigation shows wrongdoing.  Don't put the employee out in front of a train until you know that the employee deserves to be there.  I've talked before about the Dangers of Scapegoats.

What we would expect of employers here following such a catastrophe is a series of blanket statements saying that an investigation is ongoing, refusing to allocate or indicate blame until the investigation is complete.  To do otherwise, to accuse an employee of human error causing a deadly accident without being confident about the allegations, would expose an employer to significant liability.

Not to mention that it makes me less confident that appropriate measures will be taken to prevent a future similar accident.  When the company line is "It was all this individual's fault, and our ships are completely safe", then I find myself questioning whether or not there's a missed opportunity to make the ships safer.  Is there nothing that could be changed on the ships themselves to reduce the chances of a subsequent accident?  We expect service providers to overreact to accidents.  When somebody dies, our confidence is shaken in the service, and we want effective preventative measures moving forward, not excuses and finger-pointing.


This blog is not intended to and does not provide legal advice to any person in respect of any particular legal issue, and does not create a solicitor-client relationship with any readers, but rather provides general legal information. If you have a legal issue or possible legal issue, contact a lawyer.


  1. same here, i also think the finger pointing is happening way too quick before any shred of evidance is avaiable, if the captain did deviate, why would his crew allow him to do that, and why would a professional capatin and crew even think about making that error of judgement.

  2. Normally, I might not expect a crew to stand in the way of a captain's decision that's anything short of obviously suicidal - one of the usual earmarks of a professional crew is that there's strict discipline, which involves following the orders of the captain, no matter what - but now there are reports coming out that there was a mini-mutiny with the crew starting the evacuation even before the captain gave the order. (Again, take it all with a grain of salt.)

    Today's reports also indicate that there are audio recordings of the Coast Guard trying to get the captain to return to the ship to assist in coordinating helicopter evacuations, yet at the same time Costa seems to be softening its position on the severity of his conduct after the collision.

    I've read a transcript of the conversation between the captain and the coast guard, and - provided that the recording is authentic, the translation is roughly accurate, and the parties involved are who they claim to be, none of which I have any real reason to doubt - it appears that the captain left while there was still a large-scale evac going on (which suggests against the benefit of the doubt that I was giving him), but with the intention of coordinating the rescue (as I suggested might be the case). The coast guard was of the view that the captain would still be more useful on the ground, so to speak; the captain disagreed.

    The chaos still hasn't cleared. Search and rescue is still going on, and there are still people unaccounted for. There will come a time when a narrative can be pieced together, but with fragmented accounts arising out of the bedlam of an emergency evacuation, that time is not yet.

    In the mean time, my condolences go out to the families of the deceased, and my best wishes to the families of the missing. 5 more bodies were found, according to recent reports, bringing the total to 11, with 24 more unaccounted for.

  3. I read somewhere that when the captain is at fault there is no liability to the company.

    I think if this is right, then there's a whole new agenda here.