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A master’s duty

Two well-publicized marine accidents — the capsizing of the Italian cruise liner Costa Concordia and the South Korean ferry Sewol — have raised a number of safety questions and concerns, including this one: Must the captain go down with the ship?

It’s a little more complicated than lore might have you believe. The safety of passengers and crew are clearly the primary responsibility of the master. And that’s been supported in court rulings in liability cases and in administrative decisions involving captains accused of negligence, incompetence or misconduct — even if it’s not clearly spelled out in statutory law.

There is growing concern that these accidents and others point to serious lapses in both the judgment and character of the masters. Both captains left their ships before all of the passengers and crew had gotten off. Equally troubling, what do the incidents say about the systems that put the men in command — and allowed them to remain there until catastrophe struck?

The standard of responsible care is much greater for the captain of a cruise liner carrying thousands than for the operator of a 28-foot express cruiser. That’s obvious. But we — the public, and especially the marine community — expect both skippers to act with prudence and care. What happened to the moral responsibility of the captain for the safety of the people under his care?

We take a close look at this in the July issue of Soundings magazine. One of the experts interviewed for the stories is James E. Mercante, head of the admiralty law practice at Rubin, Fiorella & Friedman, where he is a partner.

Click here for an opinion piece by Mercante on the topic for the New York Law Journal. I think you’ll find it interesting.

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