Traumatised survivors ready to sue as Costa captain faces judges

Oct 12, 2012
Andrea Vogt

On eve of Italian criminal inquest, lawyers in US and France are ready to pounce if justice does not prevail

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ONE WOMAN has such a fear of water she is unable to take baths. Others report agoraphobia, panic attacks, depression and nightmares. Many suffer recurrent visions of seeing people swept away to their deaths.

They are the 4,220 remaining survivors of the Costa Concordia, the giant cruise ship that ran aground and sank off the coast of Tuscany on 13 January this year, leaving 32 dead and the ship's captain under arrest, besieged by rumours that he had a young mistress on board and that he had endangered passengers' lives by sailing too close to land for a lark.

The survivors are scattered across the world, all with a common painful experience, but each carrying their own unique post-traumatic burdens and pursuing different paths to justice.

Some have taken the €11,000 payout in exchange for promising not to sue. Some have joined expensive class-action lawsuits in the US in exchange for a hefty cut of winnings promised by the American attorneys representing them. In France, many have joined forces to bargain collectively.

The Italian criminal inquest into the Costa Concordia shipwreck finally opens in Grosseto – the closest town to the scene of the accident - on Monday 15 October.

The Grosseto judges will hear evidence from a dry but damning 270-page technical report compiled by two Navy admirals and two engineers. It details the maddening series of errors by crew, captain and the cruise company Costa Crociere that doomed the mega cruise ship.

Among the nine people facing charges ranging from manslaughter to abandoning ship is the captain, Francesco Schettino. Given the stories of the mistress – a Moldovan dancer called Domnica Cemortan – and the accusation that he purposefully took the ship too close to land for a sail-by 'salute', his presence alone guarantees a heavy media presence.

But while all eyes are on Italy, a parallel investigation ordered by France's justice ministry could end up in a French courtroom within months.

France is one of the few countries to open its own formal probe immediately after the accident, and that investigation has marched efficiently forward in the nine months that have passed. On Coast Guard orders, the 456 survivors were interviewed by the French Gendarmerie, who asked them all the same questions, amassing a formidable database of independent depositions detailing their experiences and the post-traumatic stress many suffered.

Half of them formed a victims' association to bargain collectively. Each passenger has a file, where medical reports, psychologists assessments and other documentation is scanned by Paris lawyers and then added into the electronic dossier, getting heftier by the day.

"We want this to be resolved by the first anniversary, or we will be going to court in France," the victims' association lawyer Bertrand Courtois told The Week. "We want to get to the truth."

The group met in recent weeks to discuss progress in the case and seek comfort in their shared suffering. To measure the psychological impact, a study was commissioned by a psychologist from the University of Haute Alsace. It revealed trauma typical of survival scenarios: nightmares, anxiety, depression, anger, a sense of abandonment and a loss of faith in the fairness of fellow humans (especially among the mothers with children).

Numerous passengers reported that when the ship first hit the rocks they were advised there was a momentary electrical blackout and told to go back to their cabins. Their statements also reveal a critical language barrier between a largely immigrant crew and the ship's Italian officers, at times seemingly unable to communicate in a common language.

The massive body of evidence assembled in France has not gone unnoticed in Italy, where it will likely be submitted as evidence. "The Italian magistrates are very interested – we have 456 different people responding to the same questions," Bertrand Courtois told The Week.

French lawyers' strong-arm tactics began last spring, when they threatened to have a Costa Crociere ship that was docked in the port of Marseilles arrested in order to force the company to the bargaining table. Within weeks, Costa Crociere had agreed to hand over an advance payment of €9,000 euros for each of the 235 members of the victims' association, without waiving any right to seek future compensation.

The Costa Concordia was carrying passengers from all over the world when it sank but the highest percentage were Italians (989), Germans (569) and French (462), and these same countries had the highest numbers of victims. The 32 who lost their lives included 12 Germans, seven Italians and six French.

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