In this Jan. 14, 2012, photo provided by the Guardia di Finanza (border police),… (Associated Press )
ROME -- The operator of the Costa Concordia cruise ship, which struck rocks and partially sank off Italy last year, killing 32 people, agreed Wednesday to pay a $1.3-million fine to avoid a possible criminal trial.
A judge in Tuscany accepted the plea agreement for Costa Crociere, a division of Miami-based Carnival Corp., in connection with the shipwreck off the island of Giglio in January 2012.
The company will not face trial, but a hearing is scheduled Monday in Tuscany to determine whether six of the firm’s employees -- including the vessel’s captain, Francesco Schettino, who is accused of steering the vessel ontothe rocks -- must stand trial on charges that include manslaughter.
U.S. lawyer John Arthur Eaves Jr., who represents 150 of the 4,000 passengers and crew members, said the accident was “primarily the fault of Carnival and its subsidiary Costa Crociere” and that the companies should have faced charges. He described the plea agreement as “a tragedy.”
Italian consumer group Codacons, which also represents passengers, described the fine as “a slap to the survivors and most of all to the relatives of the victims of the shipwreck.”
“The responsibility of the company for the shipwreck on Giglio is more than evident, as are the many shortcomings in the safety systems on the Costa Concordia,” Codacons said in a statement.
Former passengers have said poor staff training led to a chaotic evacuation of the vessel as crew members struggled to release lifeboats.
Marco de Luca, a lawyer for Costa Crociere, called the plea agreement “the most reasonable solution.” The company has blamed Schettino for the disaster.
Schettino allegedly rammed the Costa Concordia into the coast of Giglio during an attempt to sail close to the island, a practice called "taking a bow." Rocks tore a long gash in the side of the 950-foot vessel that caused it to take on water and list before grounding in shallow water. He could face 20 years in jail.
“Carnival and Costa Crociere set the standards that allowed this to happen, permitting captains to change routes and allowing crew that didn’t speak the same language to work together,” Eaves said. “A 1-million euro fine will not get them to change their ways.”
Costa Crociere still faces civil lawsuits by the relatives of passengers who drowned while trying to flee the ship, as well as by survivors who have turned down the firm’s starting offer of about $14,400 per person in compensation.
Eaves said he was due to take depositions from Carnival Chief Executive Micky Arison and members of the firm’s safety committee about company safety measures before potential civil proceedings. Eaves is seeking $5 million in compensation for each of the passengers he represents.
The plea agreement means Costa Crociere may pursue legal action as an injured party. It has said it will seek payment of damages for the loss of the ship.
Codacons spokesman Stefano Zerbi said it would have been preferable to see Costa Crociere "stand trial alongside its staff."
“It is a legal paradox," Zerbi said, "that the firm can pay this fine and then simply reappear at a trial as an injured party, as a victim."
On the island of Giglio, salvage operators now expect to right the Costa Concordia in early August before seeking to float it off the rocks in the autumn.
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