Liability of a Negligent Ship Captain

Tragedies at sea over the last few years have shed light on a recurring problem: captain negligence and the disaster that can result. From ferries to cruise ships, captain negligence can cost the lives of passengers.

Capsized South Korean Ferry

On April 16, 2015, a South Korean ferry capsized—leaving more than 300 people dead or missing, many of whom were school children. It was found that the ferry had been severely compromised following a remodel to increase its capacity; it was also found that the ferry had set sail on that fateful day overloaded and with insufficient ballast.

With poor weight distribution and choppy water, the vessel became unresponsive to navigation. In response, the crew attempted to make a 15-degree turn in a few seconds. General practice dictates that ferries this size take at least a few minutes to turn 5 degrees. The ferry listed and then began to sink, and was completely submerged within several hours.

Following the incident, the captain was given a prison sentence of 36 years after being found guilty of negligence and the abandonment of his passengers. The captain was among 15 crewmembers who were accused of abandoning the ferry after ordering passengers to stay in their cabins. In fact, the order to stay put was being repeated as the captain was leaving. The verdict was given amidst the continued grief of those who lost loved ones, as well as a flurry of unanswered questions.

Family members criticized the sentence for being too lenient. The captain was chiefly criticized for leaving navigation to an inexperienced third officer instead of issuing commands that might have prevented tragedy.

Costa Concordia Cruise Ship

On January 13, 2012, the Costa Concordia, an Italian cruise ship, ran aground off the coast of Isola del Giglio in Italy. It was reported that the ship struck an underwater object and then capsized. At the time of the incident, the ship was carrying more than 4,200 people who had just begun the first leg of the cruise that was slotted to take them around the Mediterranean Sea.

More than 30 lives were lost in the accident. It took nearly three years to recover the remains of the final victim.

According to the survivors, the impact could be heard throughout the ship and caused a temporary blackout when water flooded the engine room. After one hour of drifting, the ship began to list and the captain ordered an evacuation. Concerned passengers subsequently alerted the harbor authorities of the incident so that vessels could be sent for rescue.

Since then, the captain has come under fire for the causing the accident; he has been accused of steering the ship too close to the shore for the sake of publicity. It has been alleged that he was distracted by a dancer who was with him at the time.

Captain's Duty to Passengers

Considering the risk to those on board, the role of the captain is vital. Consequently, the captain has a duty to safely navigate the ship without distraction. In the event of a disaster, a safe evacuation of the passengers and crew must be the captain's first priority. We see in the two examples above that the captains, after neglecting their duty and creating the situations, made it to safety without first securing the safety of the passengers who they were tasked with keeping safe.

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