Is The Captain Required To Stay On A Sinking Ship?

Nearly a week after a cruise ship capsized off the coast of Italy, its captain is under house arrest and could face charges of multiple manslaughter, shipwreck and abandoning ship. Rod Sullivan, professor of maritime law at the Florida Coastal School of Law, tells Steve Inskeep the captain has no legal obligation to go down with the ship.

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STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Next, we'll explore the laws and customs that are supposed to govern the captain of a ship in distress. A cruise ship remains on its side in Italy. Captain Francesco Schettino is under house arrest. He was in charge when the ship ran aground. When it capsized, he made it to a life raft well before many passengers and did not follow demands to return to the ship.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Italian spoken)

INSKEEP: A Coast Guard official barked there, you go aboard. It is an order.

The people who've heard that tape include Rod Sullivan, who is a former merchant seaman and now a maritime law professor.

I begin this discussion with things that I've heard my whole life, phrases like the captain goes down with the ship, or whatever. What actually is the captain's responsibility under maritime law?

ROD SULLIVAN: That old saying stems from salvage. If a captain left the ship, anybody could come onboard and salvage it. But in the modern Merchant Marine and in connection with passenger ships, he is legally required to render assistance to every single person trying to get off that ship, and also identify those people who may have been killed in the incident.

INSKEEP: Granted, with anything like this, there'll be an investigation. But we have some evidence. We've heard these radio calls. How'd this captain do?

SULLIVAN: This captain did terribly. You can tell from the radio calls, first of all, he's not in a position to assist in rescuing passengers. And he's not even moving into a position to rescue passengers. And more than that, listen to his demeanor. This is not a man who has got his passengers' safety in the front of his mind. He's just not in control. And I think that speaks very poorly for this particular captain.

INSKEEP: Now, when you say that the captain of any given ship has a legal responsibility to remain in position to help the passengers in a situation like this, whose law is that?

SULLIVAN: Well, in the United States, it's a matter of statute. A captain can be criminally prosecuted if he doesn't do that. It is also a matter of the law of the sea, for which there is no criminal prosecution, you know, in an international arena. But I would assume that the laws of Italy are the same and that he's going to be subject to the same type of prosecution.

INSKEEP: What's the law of the sea?

SULLIVAN: Well, the law of the sea, with regard to commercial operations, are those things that we have international treaties on. For example, there's a law of the sea with regards to liability for passenger injuries called the Athens Convention, and the United States isn't a signatory to it, but Italy is. And so consequently, those people who died on this ship are going to be limited to $71,400 in compensation, because that's what the Athens Convention provides.

INSKEEP: Let's get back to the captain. If it's found that the captain was, you know, extraordinarily negligent in his duties in any number of ways in a disaster like this one, do you still have that limit on damages of $71,000 or so?

SULLIVAN: You do. The Athens Convention doesn't address the question of gross negligence and recklessness. The thing that really gripes me here is the rescue operation, or the abandon-ship operation. The captain knows or should know that you can't launch the lifeboats after you reach a 15-degree list. And once you get to 15 degrees, the lifeboats on the inboard side are hanging too far away from the hull for passengers to get onboard. The lifeboats on the outboard side are sliding down the hull. So you've just cut off the escape route for most of your passengers.

INSKEEP: So should the captain face criminal charges entirely aside from any civil damages that might be levied?

SULLIVAN: In my opinion, this captain was grossly negligent and reckless, both in causing the collision and in the inappropriate abandon-ship procedures, and then leaving the ship. So, yes, I think he should be subject to criminal charges.

INSKEEP: Professor Rod Sullivan of the Florida Coastal School of Law in Jacksonville, Florida.

Thanks very much.

SULLIVAN: Thank you, Steve.

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