Law And Legend Gird An Old Adage: The Captain Goes Down With The Ship

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Rod Sullivan, director of graduate programs in logistics and transportation at the Florida Coastal School of Law, explains the law and tradition of the maxim that a captain must go down with his ship.


From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Audie Cornish.


And I'm Melissa Block. Divers continue to recover more bodies from the South Korean ferry that sank last week. The death toll now stands at 87 with some 215 more missing, many of them high school students. And today, the President of South Korea, Park Geun-hye, called the actions of the captain and crew who deserted the vessel unforgivable, murderous behavior. The captain and several crew members who were rescued have been arrested. They face charges, including for the captain, negligence of duty and violation of maritime law. To talk more about the law and codes of maritime conduct that could apply here, I'm joined by Rod Sullivan. He teaches maritime law at the Florida Coastal School of Law. Professor Sullivan, thanks for being with us.

ROD SULLIVAN: Thank you, Melissa.

BLOCK: President Park today called it unimaginable, both legally and morally, that in her words, the crew escaped first, abandoning the passengers. Is it unimaginable to you what happened here?

SULLIVAN: Well, there were some severe errors in judgment made, there's no question about it. There was only 30 minutes of time between when the ship first started listing over to the portside to when the list had increased to 50 degrees. At least during 10 of those minutes, he might have had a question as to whether or not the vessel was going to continue to list. But after that, it was clear, the sinking of the ship is then inevitable and that became the time to get everybody off the ship.

BLOCK: And the captain has said, in his defense, that he was concerned about passengers being in very cold water with a very fast current, that he thought that it would be more dangerous there.

SULLIVAN: Well, I respectfully disagree. This ship had 44 lifeboats on the top deck of the vessel, each one of which could carry 25 passengers. That means they had a capacity for over 1,100 people in the life rafts. And if you look at the picture of Captain Lee stepping off of his vessel onto a rescue craft, you'll see right next to him lines and lines of unopened life rafts that had never even been thrown into the water. So, while the captain is putting the best spin on things, I think he's wrong.

BLOCK: The notion that the captain goes down with the ship, doesn't abandon a vessel in distress, where does that come from?

SULLIVAN: Well, it's a very old concept, and it probably doesn't apply today in the way people think it does. Under South Korean law, the captain has an obligation to stay with the ship until all the passengers are rescued. And if he does not do that, there can be criminal penalties, but they're relatively modest - about 5,000 U.S. dollars. Where the criminal responsibility comes here is for failing to aid the passengers in getting off of the ship, and that can bring with it a five-year penalty, just for failing to provide the aid. And then if this whole accident happened as a result of negligence in the operation of the vessel, the captain can be looking at manslaughter and life in prison.

BLOCK: Is there some question salvage rights and that sort of led to the idea or the concept of the captain should go down with the vessel, should not abandon?

SULLIVAN: Yeah, exactly. This has never been the idea that the captain is so married to the vessel that if the vessel dies he should die. Really, this arises out of salvage law. If the captain is not onboard the vessel then anybody can come onboard the vessel and salvage it. So, the idea was the captain stays 'til the very end so that he can direct what's going to happen to his ship. But it's not an idea that he's supposed to sacrifice his own life because the ship is going down.

BLOCK: Professor Sullivan, thanks for talking with us.

SULLIVAN: Thanks, Melissa.

BLOCK: That's Rod Sullivan. He teaches maritime law at the Florida Coastal School of Law.

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