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Costa Concordia Pretrial: The Blame Game Begins

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It’s been more than 10 months since the January 13 crash of the Costa Concordia and now the drama is starting to play out in court.

This week, the Tuscan city of Grosseto held a closed pretrial hearing so large that the town moved it from the courtroom to a local theater. The hearing was intended to determine if the Costa Concordia captain, Francesco Schettino, will be charged with manslaughter of 32 passengers.

Schettino, who has been accused with causing the shipwreck and abandoning ship while passengers and crew were still aboard, is not standing trial alone. Eight other crew members and officials from Concordia owner Costa Crociere, a division of Carnival Corporation, have also been accused, but not officially charged.

Costa Crociere has denied any negligence. Instead, it is focusing blame on Schettino who was fired in July. The Costa Crociere’s lawyers are defending the ship’s other crew.

Schettino, who is also suing Costa Crociere for wrongful termination, is now working to shift blame to factors beyond the captain’s error.

Prior to the hearing, the court appointed a panel of experts that put together a 270-page analysis of data recorders, ship communication equipment, interviews and more. According to the report, Schettino should be held responsible for the collision and errors in evacuation.

However, other factors resulted in the tragedy. The committee identified language barriers, crew members without proper safety and evacuation certifications, and malfunctioning lights and equipment. Most notably, the sonar depth sounder was turned off prior to the accident.

Schettino’s lawyers worked to magnify those errors arguing that the additional errors needed closer examination. They sought to shift some blame on to the ship’s Indonesian helmsman, who might not have understood Schettino’s orders. Schettino team requested to have the helmsman attend the hearing, but the judge denied that request. Schettino’s team also argued that he was not at the helm when the ship struck. However, the expert report contradict that claim.

Depending on the final outcome of the hearing a criminal trial will not begin until 2013.  But there are other forces at play. Peter Greenberg adds,

The real key to this trial — as with many wrongful death  cases,  is jurisdiction. A number of U.S. attorneys, representing American families of the Costa Concordia victims,  have been trying, so far without success to get cases moved to the state of Florida, where parent corporation Carnival  is based. Why? Because from day one, Carnival (and Costa Cruises) maneuvered to quickly get the legal case (and the resulting suits) heard in Italian courts. Under Italian law there is apparently a limitation of liability in these cases to less than $200,000 per victim. In the U.S., there is no such cap, and that doesn’t even get into the area of punitive damages if the plaintiffs can prove willful negligence. This might also explain why the cruise line was so quick to throw captain Schettino under the boat…or bus within hours of the tragedy.

In fact,  John Arthur Eaves Jr, an American lawyer representing 150 people in a U.S. lawsuit against Carnival Corp. did travel to Italy to closely monitor the evidence here in relation to his cases.

For more about the Costa Concordia, check out:

By Lily J. Kosner for