Today's hearing in the packed theater in Grosetto regarding the Costa Concordia disaster adjourned. It was a curious day.
Captain Schettino previously denied all of the legal charges which been mentioned in the press: manslaughter of 32 passengers and crew members, causing a shipwreck, and abandoning ship. But the Chicago Tribune reports that when Schettino met face-to-face with some survivors and families of the dead, believe it or not, he apologized to them.
There appears to be a tactic acknowledgment, it seems to me, that Schettino admits to his part in causing the accident, notwithstanding his insensitive and egotistic rantings over the past many months. Now his defense lawyer, Bruno Leporatti, wishes to spread the blame around.
U.S. personal injury lawyers who attended the hearing are eager to help with that task. Two American lawyers were mentioned in the press, Mississippi lawyer John Eaves and New York lawyer Peter Ronai. Ronai's comment outside of the hearings "there was no reason for anyone to die" was widely circulated. It resonated with me.
The U.S. lawyers are on the scene looking to cull evidence that may help their lawsuits filed against Costa and parent cruise line Carnival in the U.S. Eaves filed a highly publicized lawsuit against Carnival in Galveston and even temporarily seized a Carnival cruise ship earlier this year. Ronai made the news by filing a lawsuit on behalf of 4 Hungarian dancers employed on the Concordia in which he sued for the astronomical sum of $200,000,000.
None of these lawsuits filed in the U.S. will make it to trial, as I have stated before, and will be dismissed with leave to re-file them in Italy. But the focus of the lawyers for survivors and Schettino are united: point the finger at the executives ashore in Italy as well as in Miami where Carnival is based. Yes, Schettino's negligence is obvious and his attitude is maddening. But there many factors that played a part in 32 people dying unnecessary, just a few hundred feet from the little port of Giglio.
Poor training, out-of-date maps which lacked detail, malfunctioning equipment, language barriers, and a corporate culture of recklessness have all been cited as examples of corporate malfeasance which may have played a part - perhaps a secondary part - in causing the deaths.
Experts selected by the Italian magistrate presiding over the investigation into the Concordia disaster have criticized the Costa cruise line in addition to the Concordia cruise ship's reckless captain.
Notwithstanding the cruise industry's media campaign to portray the incident as solely the result of Captain Schettino's renegade conduct, the Italian experts included criticisms of Costa in their initial opinions submitted to the magistrate in Genoa.
The experts studied black box data, recordings of conversations of the officers, and nautical maps.
The criticisms include:
Costa delayed alerting coastal authorities of the emergency.
Costa's "fleet crisis coordinator," Roberto Ferrarini, did not promptly inform Schettino to order the passengers and crew to abandon ship when he learned that three compartments were flooded which compromised the vessel's stability.
The crew members were untrained, unprepared and not certified for emergencies.
Language barrier between crew members compromised the navigation of the ship and complicated the evacuation of the ship. Indonesian helmsman at one point before the crash veered to the right despite being told to go left.
These criticisms seem rather restrained to me. Costa did not even have a protocol to require muster station drills before sailing for goodness sake! The cruise line has been criticized in the press for permitting and approving "fly-bys" or "salutes" which is the root cause of the disaster.
Costa categorically denied all responsibility for the deaths and dismissed all of these criticisms.
I returned to Miami from Washington DC this afternoon after attending the cruise safety hearings convened in the House of Representatives and the Senate this week.
These hearings were the sixth and seventh Congressional hearings regarding the issue of cruise ship dangers I have attended since 2005.
I met my friends and former clients in DC from the International Cruise Victims (ICV) organization: ICV CEO Ken Carver, ICV President Jamie Barnett, and ICV Board member Laurie Dishman who has traveled to DC over 30 times.
Professor Ross Klein was invited to speak at the Senate hearing and he objectively laid out the cruise industry's history of cruise ship collisions, groundings, sinkings and fires. His written submission is the most impressively thorough and complete list of cruise ship related maritime disasters I have ever seen. Professor Klein's hard work and detailed analysis of cruise ship mishaps contrasted sharply with the self-serving opinions of the cruise line advocates who talked in conclusory phrases ("cruising is incredibly safe"). I will be linking to Professor Klein's research as soon as he uploads the information to his website.
During the hearings I met a half-dozen survivors of the Costa Concordia disaster, who traveled from Florida, Georgia and Massachusetts.
The hearings left me with a realization of the polarization of our Congress, and perhaps our country.
The meeting in the Republican controlled House on Wednesday was not unlike a big cocktail party. The cruise line representatives & cruise industry lobbyists back-slapped and joked around with Republican Congressmen and Congresswomen like it was their five year college reunion. The Republicans extolled the cruise industry's great "entrepreneurs" without even a fleeting thought or concern of the cruise industry's disastrous effect on the environment, or the cruise industry's exploitation of foreign crewmembers, or the fact that the cruise industry pays virtually no U.S taxes although it relies heavily on U.S. agencies to conduct its business.
Contrast this freak show with the serious attitude of the Senate hearing on Thursday, which was presided over by a well respected Democratic Senator like Jay Rockefeller who has dedicated his life protecting the coal mine workers from his state of West Virginia and consumers across the U.S.
As long as there are responsible consumer-oriented leaders like Senator Rockefeller in Congress, the victims of cruise ship malfeasance have a fighting chance to force the cruise industry to be accountable when they injure and kill passengers and crew and destroy our environment.
Photograph above: ICV President Jamie Barnett, ICV Director Laurie Dishman, Cruise Expert Professor Ross Klein, Costa Concordia survivor, Jim Walker, ICV member Shari Cecil, and ICV CEO Ken Carver.
Unlike the love fest between the Republican members of Congress and the cruise line representatives at the hearing before the House on Wednesday, the hearing before the U.S. Senate was certainly not warm and fuzzy.
U.S. Senator Jay Rockefeller, D-W. Va., who chairs the Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee, started the hearing off questioning why the highly profitable cruise lines pay virtually no U.S. income taxes although they extensively use the resources of some 40 Federal agencies. Senator Rockefeller continued saying that he was suspicious of the cruise industry which uses antiquated laws and onerous contractual terms to deny fair compensation to families who die or are injured during cruises.
Senator Rockefeller also questioned the ethics of an industry which dumps human sewage just three miles off the coast of the U.S., creating floating islands of untreated sewage.
The exchange between Senator Rockefeller and Christine Duffy, the CEO of the Cruise Line International Association ("CLIA") was remarkable. Ms. Duffy read from a prepared script which touched upon all of CLIA's "talking points," but she would not respond directly to Senator Rockefeller's tough questions.
Senator Rockefeller asked Ms. Duffy to admit that Carnival Corporation pays only 1.1% in taxes in the 11 billion dollars in profits made over the course of the last three years. She would not directly respond and she also skirted the question whether she considered that to be fair. Ms. Duffy would also not immediately agree to provide income tax returns to the committee, until he threatened to use the subpoena power of the Senate.
Senator Rockefeller drew an analogy between what happens deep in the coal mines of his state of West Virginia with what happens on the high sea beyond three miles. He questioned Ms. Duffy's credibility and admonished her to "speak more truth." Referring to the cruise industry, he stated "You are A World Unto Yourselves."
What a difference a day makes, between the Republican party heaping praise on Ms. Duffy the day before at the House hearing, and the tough questions posed by a Democratic Senator the following day.
Yesterday the House of Representatives Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure convened a hearing on the Costa Concordia disaster.
As I mentioned in prior articles, I was concerned that the Chairman of the committee, John Mica, a Republican from Florida who is an unabashed supporter of the Florida-based cruise industry, would use the hearing as a platform to praise the cruise lines and help them try and rehabilitate their tarnished reputation.
I was right. The hearing yesterday began with the committee members praising the cruise industry and "applauding" the cruise lines for what they described as an "excellent" safety record. Chairman Mica described cruising as a "joyful," "pleasurable" and "incredible" experience. Congressman Young from Alaska trumped the Italian investigators and announced that "there was nothing wrong with that ship." He applauded the industry's "great safety record," and warned against against "casting aspersions" on the cruise lines. Congresswoman Maxine Brown, also a cruise lines supporter from Florida and a former travel agent, praised the cruise industry as providing the "safest" form of transportation in the world.
The cruise line and CLIA representatives touched on all of their "talking points," and then scurried out a back door behind the hearing room to avoid the press.
Although Congresswoman Doris Matsui (CA) and Congresswoman Mazie Hirono (Hawaii) asked some tough questions, the hearing was mostly a pep rally for the cruise industry.
Most disappointing was the involvement of Congressman Elijah Cummings (photo left) who, like all of the other committee members never mentioned the dead U.S. passengers (Gerald Heil, age 69, and Barbara Heil, age 70, of Minnesota) by name.
How can the U.S. House of Representative conduct an inquiry into a cruise disaster which kills two Americans where no one even mentions the names of the dead couple?
Congressman Cummings, usually an even keeled legislator who has treated cruise victims with respect, made clear that his primary concern was for the reputation and economic interests of the cruise lines. He brought up the issue of what he described as avoiding "collateral damage." He said to the C-SPAN audience that he wanted to make certain that no one came away from the hearing with an impression that cruise lines were not safe.
Collateral damage? Thirty two people dead or missing and Mr. and Ms. Heil's bodies remain trapped in the bowels of the Costa Concordia. And Congressman Cummings is concerned that the cruise industry's reputation may be collaterally damaged by the investigation?
Later this morning, the Senate will be convening its own hearing on the Concordia debacle. Let's hope that the Senate takes the tragedy more seriously and asks some tough questions.Maech
Republican John Mica (R - Fla.) (photo left) is the chairman of the committee. Unfortunately, he is no fan of cruise victims. His allegiance is squarely to the cruise industry.
I have been to five Congressional hearings regarding cruise crime and passenger disappearances over the last six years. My clients - three women raped on cruise ships, a family whose father was killed in a cruise ship fire, and a widow whose husband disappeared during a cruise - appeared in Washington and testified. Very serious and somber stuff. But when Congressman Mica presided over one of the hearings, it was an ugly event. Disrespectful is an understatement. He mocked some of the cruise crime victims to the point that the audience began booing.
It was to my surprise therefore that shortly after the Costa Concordia disaster last month, Congressman Mica announced that he was going to convene a hearing to examine the Costa Concordia crash and determine whether cruise ships operating out of the U.S. were operating safely. I wondered had Congressman Mica found his soul? Or did he plan on conducting a publicity stunt for his cruise line friends and supporters in Florida by assuring the public that everything with the cruise industry was safe and sound.
I received my answer last week when I received a copy of the list of witness who would testify - five cruise line representatives and one Coast Guard witness. But no survivors of the Costa disaster. No cruise victims. No cruise critics. No neutral cruise experts.
Congressman Mica seemed to have designed the hearing be a Congressional love fest between the Congressional cruise supporters and the cruise line employees & lobbyists. Consider the line up of cruise supporters:
Christine Duffy (photo above left) - President of the Cruise Line International Association (CLIA)
Michael Crye - Lawyer for the Cruise Line International Association.
Vicky Rey - (photo left below) PR person and customer care representative for Carnival Cruise Lines.
George Wright - Operations Department of Carnival subsidiary, Princess Cruises.
Ms. Duffy and Mr. Crye, employees of the cruise industry's trade organizations CLIA, are paid cheerleaders for the cruise line whose testimony will consist of repeating the cruise industry's "talking points" and alternating between saying that "cruising is incredibly safe" and the "safety & security of cruise passengers are CLIA's highest priority." Ms. Rey has no technical knowledge about anything and is Carnival's happy face for publicity purposes. The two cruise employees with maritime knowledge, Mr. Wright from Princess and Captain Hoyt from NCL, have no first hand knowledge of the Costa Concordia debacle.
Where were the survivors of the Costa Concordia? Frightened families who cried as they explained the terror and confusion of the ill-fated cruise have appeared in documentaries on the Discovery channel, on ABC's 20/20 cruise special, CNN's Anderson Cooper and all of the major networks. But Congressman Mica couldn't find one single cruise victim anywhere?
It was only after member of the International Cruise Victims (ICV) organization learned of the stacked deck and protested to the subcommittee did Congressman Mica agree that one couple who survived the cruise horror could testify. Sameer and Divya Sharma (photograph right, on cruise ship) were added as last minute witnesses.
Mr. and Ms. Sharma family are wine and spirit shop owners in the Medford / Stoneham area in Massachusetts who were celebrating their fifth wedding anniversary when disaster struck. To obtain a glimpse of their anticipated testimony at the hearing tomorrow, watch the video below and consider what they explained to a reporter in a local newspaper in Medford:
We were lied to,” said Sameer Sharma. “They said this is just an electrical mistake, we’re working on it, generators being kicked in, everything under control, stay calm, don’t panic and enjoy your dinner. They had the audacity of making the same announcement right when we were waiting to board the lifeboats when it was very obvious the boat was going down.”
The Sharmas said they heard announcements made “on behalf of the captain” throughout the evening, not realizing until the next day that Captain Franceso Shettino had already fled the ship. As reassuring announcements blared over the speakers, Divya described a clustered group of men, women and children waiting to board lifeboats with no sense of organization. She called it “mass hysteria.”
“I’ve never seen anything so unorganized and chaotic in my life,” Divya said, adding several adults wore child-size life jackets because there were not enough adult-size life jackets to go around.
Certainly insight like this will be more revealing to the subcommittee of the dire circumstances the cruise passengers faced than the happy talk of the cruise line PR people. I'm sure that Congressman Mica would prefer that the Sharma family stay in Massachusetts.
Video credit: wamcadoo YouTube
Photo credit: Sameer Sharma
Newspaper credit: Wicked Local Medford / Medford Transcript
The U.S. House and Senate have scheduled hearings for February 29 and March 1, 2012 to address whether the cruise industry has taken adequate steps to protect cruise passengers and comply with newly enacted laws designed to make cruising safer.
A series of events prompted the Congressional hearings.
First, and most obvious, is the Costa Concordia disaster. There is not much debate that the cruise ship engaged in a reckless maneuver of showboating near the rocks of Giglio - apparently with the blessing of the cruise line - which endangered the lives of thousands of passengers who were further imperiled by the irresponsibility of the vessel's officers and the disorganization of its crew. Chaos and confusion caused by a cowardly to-hell-with-the women-and-children captain who managed to place his mistress in one of the first lifeboats to safety.
17 dead and 15 missing are the result.
Only after these deaths did the public learn that the International Maritime Organization (IMO), which is suppose to oversee the cruise lines, did not even require lifeboat drills before the departure of ships from port. So much for the "stringent requirements" of this toothless United Nations' maritime fraternity. This is the madness which results when cruise lines are left to their own devices.
Secondly, and equally importantly, is the failure of the cruise lines, the Federal Bureau of Investigations (FBI) and the Coast Guard to comply with the newly enacted Cruise Vessel Security and Safety Act.
The new cruise safety law was designed to require the cruise lines to do things as simple as bore peepholes in passenger doors, and to have at least one crewmember certified in crime scene preservation. The Coast Guard was required to post accurate crime statistics on a web page based on crimes reported to the FBI. The purpose of the crime statistics was for the public to finally see truthful crime statistics of the thefts, homicides, suspicious deaths, assaults and sexual assaults which occur during cruises.
The cruise lines have failed to comply with many aspects of the new law.
This year alone I have seen a cruise line destroy evidence more thoroughly and brazenly than I have ever seen; refuse to release a rape victim's medical records to the victim as required by law; and refuse to report crimes in a timely and accurate manner.
The reporting system in place by the FBI and Coast Guard is a joke. Over the years we have obtained (through court orders) lists of rapes on cruise ships. We know that cruise lines historically have over 100 sexual assaults a year, in addition to thefts, disappearances suggesting foul play and physical assaults. But take a look at the FBI / Coast Guard on-line report of the last quarter of 2011 here - only 3 sexual assaults and not one single theft, physical assault, homicide or suspicious death for the entire cruise industry!
The problem is that the FBI is disinterested in involving itself in shipboard rapes, disappearances and murders and is leaving the dirty work to the cruise line security to investigate the crimes. But there is an inherent conflict of interest in delegating law enforcement duties to the cruise ship's security officers who have already failed the cruise passengers. One of our clients was raped by a security guard. Do you think the cruise line security department is going to build a case against one of their own? The bottom line is that many cruise crimes remain unreported by the cruise lines or not investigated by the FBI.
The problem is compounded by the fact that the FBI does not report crimes to the Coast Guard database whenever there is an open file. One thing that the FBI is good at is keeping its investigations open, even if there are no investigations ongoing. The Department of Justice rarely prosecutes cases after FBI investigations.
The International Cruise Victims (ICV) has worked hard over the past 6 years to bring the new cruise safety law into effect. Our firm has attended 5 Congressional hearings since 2005, 4 in the House and 1 in the Senate, before the new law came into effect. We have seen the dedication of the ICV members over the years. One of our clients, Laurie Dishman, has traveled to Washington over 30 times to lobby Congress for a law to protect the cruising public.
Its a real shame that the goals of the new legislation - greater accountability and transparency of the cruise lines and greater safety of passengers in the process - are being subverted by the cozy relationship between the self-regulating cruise industry and the FBI which has little interest in investigating cruise ship rapes.
So far, the entire cruise industry has refused to commit to send one single cruise line president or CEO to attend the cruise hearings at the end of this month. Instead the cruise industry will send Christine Duffy, the president of the Cruise Line International Association (CLIA), who has been giving talking points on how to sell cruise tickets to travel agents by overcoming customer fears about cruising following the Costa Concordia debacle.
We will hear about how wonderful cruising is and how the safety of the passengers is the cruise industry's highest priority. Ms. Duffy will make these remarks while 2 Americans and 13 other passengers from other nations remain trapped dead in the sarcophagus of the Costa Concordia.
Hopefully the House and Senate will see through this happy talk.
The Concordia crash should be a wake up call that this is a self-regulating industry which needs a tight rein. The cruise line / FBI / Coast Guard reporting system is a failure. Congress needs to take a hard look at the cruise industry and the federal agencies which are making a mockery of the cruise safety law.
Maritime & admiralty lawyer & attorney James M. Walker of Walker & O'Neill Law Firm, offering services related to injuries, sexual assaults, fires, negligence, rapes & disappearances on cruise ships, pirate & terrorist attacks, missing passengers, shore excursions, wrongful death and the Jones Act, serving cruise passengers, crew members, cabin attendants, utility workers, waiters, bar tenders, ship doctors and cleaners on cruise ships worldwide.
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