It appears that the Italian subsidiary of Carnival Cruise Lines will be facing hundreds of personal injury lawsuits and wrongful death claims over the unexplained acts of the captain of the Costa Concordia. Capt. Francesco Schettino steamed the cruise liner to within about 300 meters of a small island, ripped a hole in the hull on a reef and apparently left the ship on a lifeboat while hundreds of passengers were still trying to escape the listing, leaking vessel.

Schettino, like any ship’s captain, was expected to stay on board until the passengers were safely off.  As it was, at least 11 people lost their lives and 22 are still missing in the ship’s wreckage. At the height of passenger’s terror, scrambling for their lives, they were without direction or guidance from the crew. It was at this time that the captain was ordered back to the ship to help.

However he did not return.  Almost as disturbing and negligent as his actions fleeing the boat were his actions that caused the wreck. The captain navigated off course in order to salute the family of the ship’s head waiter. Though not a crime in itself, he then navigated too close to the rocky shore while ignoring alarms from the ship. When questioned he claimed that the rocks were not marked on his charts. But local fisherman and others were amazed at the claim. They say the dangerous rocks are well known and clearly marked.

No lives were lost in the initial collision. There was still time to radio for help from the port authority. The captain failed his duties and lied to the rescue personnel for nearly an hour, claiming he had an electrical failure and made no mention of the collision.

If the captain had swallowed his pride and alerted rescue personal during that hour before the ship took on water the crew may have been able to lower the life boats, saving countless lives. The English transcript of the captain speaking by cell phone with the Italian Coast Guard is amazing. As translated by Reuters, the entire conversation went as follows:

Coast Guard: Hello.
Captain: Good evening, chief.
Coast Guard: Listen, this is De Falco from Livorno. Am I speaking with the captain?
Captain: Good evening, Chief De Falco.
Coast Guard: Tell me your name, please.
Captain: I am Captain Schettino, chief.
Coast Guard: Schettino?
Captain: Yes.
Coast Guard: Listen, Schettino. There are people trapped on board. Now, you go with your lifeboat. Under the bow of the ship, on the right side, there is a ladder. You climb on that ladder and go on board the ship. Go on board the ship and get back to me and tell me how many people are there. Is that clear. I am recording this conversation, Captain Schettino.
(Captain tries to speak but Coast Guard can’t hear him clearly. Voices in the Coast Guard room.)
Coast Guard: Speak up! (captain tries to speak) Captain, put your hand over the microphone and speak in a louder voice!
Captain: At this moment the ship is listing.
Coast Guard: There are people who are coming down the ladder on the bow. Go back in the opposite direction, get back on the ship, and tell me how many people there are and what they have on board. Tell me if there are children, women and what type of help they need. And you tell me the number of each of these categories. Is that clear?
Listen Schettino, perhaps you have saved yourself from the sea but I will make you look very bad. I will make you pay for this. Dammit, go back on board!
(Noise can be heard in the background. Apparently other Coast Guard officers are shouting to each other in the same room about “the ship, the ship”)
Captain: Please …
Coast Guard: There is no ‘please’ about it. Get back on board. Assure me you are going back on board!
Captain: I’m in a lifeboat, I am under here. I am not going anywhere. I am here.
Coast Guard: What are you doing, captain?
Captain: I am here to coordinate the rescue…
Coast Guard (interrupting): What are you coordinating there! Get on board! Coordinate the rescue from on board! Are you refusing?
Captain: No, I am not refusing.
Coast Guard: Are you refusing to go aboard, captain? Tell me the reason why you are not going back on board.
Captain: (inaudible)… there is a another lifeboat…
Coast Guard (interrupting, yelling): You get back on board! That is an order! There is nothing else for you to consider. You have sounded the “Abandon Ship.” Now I am giving the orders. Get back on board. Is that clear? Don’t you hear me?
Captain: I am going aboard.
Coast Guard: Go! Call me immediately when you are on board. My rescue people are in front of the bow.
Captain: Where is your rescue craft?
Coast Guard: My rescue craft is at the bow. Go! There are already bodies, Schettino. Go!
Captain: How many bodies are there?
Coast Guard: I don’t know! … Christ, you should be the one telling me that!
Captain: Do you realize that it is dark and we can’t see anything?
Coast Guard: So, what do you want to do, to go home, Schettino?! It’s dark and you want to go home? Go to the bow of the ship where the ladder is and tell me what needs to be done, how many people there are, and what they need! Now!
Captain: My second in command is here with me.
Coast Guard: Then both of you go! Both of you! What is the name of your second in command?
Captain: His name is Dmitri (static)”
Coast Guard: What is the rest of his name? (static) You and your second in command get on board now! Is that clear?
Captain: Look, chief, I want to go aboard but the other lifeboat here has stopped and is drifting. I have called …
Coast Guard (interrupting): You have been telling me this for an hour! Now, go aboard! Get on board, and tell me immediately how many people there are!
Captain: OK, chief.
Coast Guard: Go! Immediately!

As a Virginia (VA) personal injury lawyer who deals with mass transit cases in which passengers are hurt, I know that this is going to be a difficult case for all those involved. Laws governing ship wrecks favor cruise lines over passengers. Though the ship is owned by Carnival, which is based in Miami, Florida (FL), maritime experts say that legal suits may be difficult to maintain in the United States.

The reason can be found in all that fine print on a cruise ship ticket. A ticket usually includes statements spelling out limits on liability and stipulating where any lawsuits or disputes will be heard. For this disaster, where the ticket was purchased may determine where an injured passenger or the survivor of a deceased victim can file claims.

Contracts written into the Costa Concordia passengers’ tickets may assert that all cruise ship lawsuits must be brought in the courts of Genoa, Italy, Forbes reports. The passenger contract language is called a “forum selection clause,” and it’s common in the cruise industry. U.S. courts have upheld such clauses in many cases, but when foreign laws do not afford remedies consistent with the U.S. personal injury laws, some courts have allowed lawsuits against foreign companies to move forward in the United States, ruling that limiting a tort action to a foreign jurisdiction is against public policy.