Adverse conditions

Costa Concordia incident is a stark illustration of the importance of tort law

It will not have escaped many lawyers’ notice that the Costa Concordia tragedy happened nearly 100 years after that of the Titanic. Yet once again a huge liner, no doubt thought by its owners and designers to be unsinkable, has found itself in trouble.

Unlike the Titanic there may have been enough lifeboats, but it seems that no real thought was given as to how that would help deal with an emergency, when launching them became unfeasible.

This is a comment piece, so I won’t try to unpick the intricacies of the Athens Convention and the other rules that govern the liabilities of shipowners and operators, although it looks as though the company’s comments so far will be a good start for anyone seeking to avoid the ­limitations on liability provided for by the convention on the basis that the collision happened because of an omission that was “reckless” within the meaning of the convention.

Many people may have wondered how safe cruise ships are. Air travel is worrying for many people but it is well-known that statistically it is very safe. No doubt the same can be said for cruise ship travel – what could possibly go wrong in 2012? Well, now we know that human error can apparently still play a large part.

The early indications from the ­operators of this cruise ship are that there was significant human error. However, events such as this should always make us stop and consider what precautions were taken and what systems were in operation to try to prevent such errors.

It has become fashionable to decry health and safety as an unwelcome burden on industry and the state, while many personal injury lawyers are readily criticised as being part of a compensation culture. The UK Government is intent on altering ­radically the way conditional fees ­operate, a system that in many cases – including the large number of ­catastrophic injury cases in which specialist lawyers become involved – enables lawyers acting for deserving claimants to take on the economic might of defendants and insurers when the occasions demand.

The European Parliament is resisting introducing a more effective collective redress system on the populist basis that it does not want ’US-style class actions’ in Europe, with an ­implicit swipe at lawyers who would, in the course of their profession, ­welcome a better system of collective redress, as this would enable them to pursue such actions against large corporations, thereby holding them to account.

Everyone’s thoughts will be with those who lost their lives in the Costa Concordia tragedy, as well as the ­injured and bereaved. The thanks of many will go out to the emergency services and healthcare staff involved, and the indications are also that the operators of this ship have taken an early and clear view as to where responsibility lies.

But when the lessons come to be learnt from this and other disasters, something that must be remembered is that the function of tort law and tort lawyers in a modern society is not just in recovering compensation for injured and bereaved parties, it is also about holding corporations and other defendants to account.