Galveston, Texas sits thirty minutes from NASA’s Johnson Space Center. The old port city’s post-Hurricane Ike rebirth has been fueled, in part, by its thriving cruise ship industry. Galveston also sits approximately 5500 miles from Giglio, the small Italian island that Carnival Cruise Captain Francesco Schettino managed to strike with the 144,000 ton Costa Concordia. Over 25 passengers lost their lives in the accident. Hundreds were injured and the property damage was enormous.
Litigation arising from the tragedy was inevitable. But few expected the first suit to be filed an ocean away, in Galveston. Nonetheless, on March 8, 2012 German citizen Kai Stumpf, on behalf of his wife (who perished in the tragedy) and all others entitled by law to recover, sued Carnival plc and Utopia Cruises in federal court in Galveston.
The suit alleged that the accident “in part resulted from a ridiculous stunt perpetrated by the so called captain of the Costa Concorida, in an ill-conceived attempt to ‘salute’ the inhabitants of Isola del Giglio, or ‘honor’ past and present crew members who lived on the island, and the failure of Carnival plc to implement a proper safety management system”.
The complaint made multiple allegations of negligence and gross negligence. It requested, among other things, damages in the amount of $10,000,000 as well as maritime attachment and garnishment (i.e. seizure) of the cruise ship Carnival Triumph which, at that moment, was apparently docked just down 25th Street at the Galveston cruise dock. The act of seizure, per the suit, would guarantee that the Galveston court would have sufficient assets of Carnival to satisfy any future judgment against the company.
While noting that the defendants were both foreign corporations, without a principal office or registered agent in the district, Stumpf alleged that the mere presence of the Triumph gave the Galveston court jurisdiction to litigate the wrongful death suit and, perhaps more importantly, the ability to seize the Triumph.
On March 8th, Stumpf dismissed the suit but then, on March 30th, refiled the case. The new suit was similar to the first, but also requested that the court order the defendants to preserve and produce the Voyage Data Recorder (the “black box”) from the vessel, as well as the Captain’s personal computer which, according to the complaint, had been taken from the vessel. On that same date, the United States Magistrate signed an Order for Issuance of Warrant for Maritime Arrest and thus ordered that the Triumph be seized. Thankfully, the court exempted passengers and their belongings from the order.
The next day, Carnival provided the court with a Letter of Undertaking, in hope that the court would allow the Triumph to sail on its regularly scheduled cruise to the Caribbean. Usually, such a letter involves (1) an assurance by the property owner that it will pay any judgment ultimately entered against it, in return for (2) the other side agreement to refrain from attempting to seize the vessel.
On April 9th, the court accepted the letter, granted the order, thus allowing the ship to leave. As of today’s date, neither Carnival nor Utopia have formally answered the suit. Almost certainly, the defendants will contest the Galveston court’s jurisdiction, or argue that Italy is the more appropriate and convenient venue to litigate the case.