After convicting six people over the failure to warn the community regarding the earthquake risk in L’Aquilla (see ‘Italian scientists convicted of manslaughter’; ‘Italian scientists appeal convictions for failing to warn of earthquake’; and http://www.6aprile.it/featured/2013/01/24/laquilas-earthquake-trial-web-documents-on-the-international-debate.html for an index to web based documents on the prosecution) the Italian courts have again convicted an emergency management official, this time the crisis coordinator employed by Costa Crociere SpA the cruise company that operated the Costa Concordia that was wrecked of Giglio Island in January 2012 (see for example ‘Five guilty in Costa Concordia trial‘; ‘Manslaughter Conviction for Costa Concordia Crisis Coordinator’; ‘Five Costa Concordia staff found guilty of manslaughter over cruise disaster‘ and any number of other articles that can be found with a simple internet search).

From a commentary point of view it’s impossible to know what the specific allegation was and as the accused all entered a plea of guilty, there will be no judicial ruling on critical issues that would be considered if the court had to determine guilt. I’m unable to locate any English version of the judges reason for imposing the particular sentences. The official investigation into the accident (Ministry of Infrastructures and Transports, Marine Casualties Investigative Body, Cruise Ship COSTA CONCORDIA Marine casualty on January 13, 2012; Report on the safety technical investigation did make some criticism of the on-shore crisis management, concluding at p 89-90:

In summary, despite the Crisis Management Preparedness Plan (established by the SMS procedure P.15.6 IO 01) was taken in place, and the related shore side Crisis Committee was held (at around 23), the Company did not catch in a suitable way – due to the DPA poor competence and the Master who minimized the scenario – the right elements to correct the Master errors, at least to stress him for an immediate abandon ship (even if at 22 27, only when the serious danger was realized).

DPA is Designated Person Ashore.

That is not enough to reach any conclusion on what happened or why the crisis coordinator was charged or entered a plea of guilty, but it does suggest the on shore management was flawed, as was the management on board.

In an Australian context this case is not a precedent. We don’t know what the issues were or what the applicable law is and the fact that they entered a plea of guilty means the essential legal and factual issues were not tested. The Australian courts are not in any way bound by the Italian decisions and the Italian legal system is not based on the English Common Law as Australian law is. On the other hand, for emergency managers it must give pause for thought and remind them that just because you are acting to respond to an emergency the law still applies and, more importantly, what is an emergency for the ship and its passengers (or those affected by a house fire or car accident) should not be an emergency for the responders. Responding to these events is what responders are meant to do so they are expected to do it with appropriate degrees of professionalism and training. Whether similar legal consequences could arise in Australia would depend on the particular facts and remains to be seen.

Michael Eburn
26 July 2013