Is a Captain Legally Obligated to Stay Aboard His Ship After a Crash?
That is the question many have been asking after the news that the Italian cruise liner Costa Concordia ran aground off the Isola del Giglio earlier this month.
According to various sources, the captain of the ship, Francesco Schettino, abandoned the ship well before the evacuation of passengers was complete, perhaps less than an hour after the ship started taking in water. In fact, a leaked conversation between the captain and a coast guard details an exchange in which the coastguard effectively ordered the captain back onto the ship in order to more effectively coordinate the safe evacuation of any remaining passengers.
While experts agree that the traditional standard and a captain’s moral duty is to remain with the ship to coordinate safe evacuation, and that there may be some minimum duty of care in terms of other related responsibilities, in this case there is no direct international or maritime law stating the duty affirmatively. But, while there may be no binding Maritime or International Law, the captain may face prosecution under Italian Law.
Under Italian common law, a captain who abandons his ship before it sinks, while passengers are still aboard, may face charges for failing to meet their duty of care. Additionally, under Article 1097 of Italy’s Maritime Law, if the commander of a vessel is not the last to leave, he risks at least two years in jail; if the vessel is lost, two to eight years; if the boat is then used to carry people, three to 12 years. In other words, if the boat is in such a condition that it is safe to stay aboard, or the risk to life isn’t that great, and the captain abandons ship anyway, the punishment can be more severe.
Captain Facing Criminal Charges
Schettino is under house arrest and is being investigated for manslaughter, abandoning ship and causing a shipwreck. Authorities are still searching for his laptop and investigating his claim that the black box had been out of service for the two weeks prior to the crash. In dispute is whether his deviation from the route was authorized by the cruise line, or was an exercise of bravado to impress passengers, or if perhaps there was some alternative explanation.
In contrast to the captain, it was the ship’s heroic head waiter, Manrico Giampedroni, who risked his life to rescue passengers and then spent 36 hours trapped on the wreck with a broken leg. Giampedroni was safely air lifted from the ship.
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