Should A Captain Go Down With The Ship or Save His Life?

There has been interesting discusses going on among maritime experts regarding the old adage that the captain must go down with the ship. The discussion surfaced mainly after the sinking of the Costa Concordia where it was reported that the captain got off the ship before the passengers, and he was criminally prosecuted for doing so. The captain had a good excuse. He said he fell onto a lifeboat when the ship tilted sideways abruptly. He is being charged with manslaughter.

Obviously, a captain’s first obligation is for the safety of his crew and passengers. He should remain onboard until he is sure he knows that everybody is safely evacuated. There is an International Maritime Convention called the Safety of Life at Sea, which does state a captain is responsible for the ship and all the people onboard the vessel, but it doesn’t specifically say that the captain must remain onboard the ship until the very last minute and go down with the ship if necessary.

Most of the experts agree there is some type of balance. Obviously, the captain must stay onboard and take care of the passengers and crewmembers, but the captain doesn’t need to die with the ship based on any maritime law stating the captain must go down with the ship.

Some countries, including Italy and South Korea, have made abandonment of ship a maritime crime.

We heard of further examples of this kind of conduct in the recent sinking of a ferry boat in South Korea.

Regardless, of whether you feel the captain should go down with the ship, we have seen blatant examples of cowardness, and blatant violations of the duties associated with being a captain of a vessel. The captain of the Costa Concordia had the responsibility for thousands of passengers and crewmembers. His getting off the vessel early before everybody else was safely evacuated, under the circumstances, should result in criminal penalties against him. It was an act of cowardness on his part.

The bottom line is there is not any international maritime laws that specifically require a captain to stay with a sinking ship. Many countries do have their own laws or subscribe to international treaties that would mandate certain behavior on the part of the captain, and find criminal responsibility for abandoning ship. A captain is required to stay onboard the ship to direct evacuation in cases of emergency. How else could a captain fulfill such obligations if he does not remain onboard?

While finding civil liability is an easy task, the debates focus around whether there should be criminal liability for captains for abandoning ships. Both captains of the South Korean ferry disaster and the Costa Concordia are facing criminal charges. The captain of the Costa Concordia faces very serious charges for manslaughter.

The debate will continue regarding these issues. I would love to hear from others as to their feelings with respect to holding the captain criminally liable, in addition to the civil liabilities aspects of the case.

Of course, we all will remember the best example of a captain in fulfilling the duty to stay onboard the ship until the very end from the Titanic’s captain, E.J. Smith, whose ship struck an iceberg, but he was recognized for his heroics in saving more than 700 lives. He insisted that the women and children get evacuated first, and he remained on the bridge as the ship went down.

Our firm continues to act as safety advocates for those harmed at sea.