A Virginia Beach lawyer hopes to steer clear of legal obstacles as she navigates the claims of a honeymooning couple who had to leap off a railing to escape the capsized Costa Concordia cruise ship when it ran aground off the coast of Italy Jan. 13.
Emily M. Brannon represents Robert and Megan Mauri of Lancaster, Pa., whose plan for a peaceful and picturesque honeymoon came to a disastrous end just as they sat down to dinner on the first night of their cruise.
Brannon’s clients tell a frightening tale.
The newlyweds – he’s 30, she’s 28 – had chosen the Italian cruise because it was different from the usual Caribbean vacations. Looking forward to “sightseeing, food and shopping,” the Mauris had purchased a new camera with a massive memory card.
As they settled in the dining room, the ship’s actual impact with the rocks aroused no concern at first. It sounded like “something mechanical,” Robert Mauri said. “We didn’t think anything of it.”
Later, as the ship started tilting and plates and glassware began falling, people jumped up and attempted to figure out what to do. Passengers heard an announcement that there was a “generator problem,” but the reassuring voice said technicians were working on it.
Robert and Megan grabbed life vests and ran to one side of the ship. Finding a crowd of passengers there, they ran to the other side. They made it aboard one lifeboat with about a hundred other people, only to have the boat become helplessly lodged against the side of the tilting ship.
Mauri said he helped 76 people out of the useless lifeboat. “We thought you were in the clear when you were in the lifeboat, but that was far from the case,” he said. All the time, Mauri kept wondering, “Where’s the rest of the crew?”
Mauri said he and his wife ran arm and arm through a bar area to get to the lower side of the ship. A piano and other musical instruments had slid up against a wall and the place smelled of the liquor from broken bottles.
Arriving at the rail just in time to see an overloaded lifeboat pulling away, the Mauris thought they had run out of options. As the water steadily rose toward them, they thought, “We’re going to end up swimming,” Robert Mauri said.
Finally, another lifeboat came alongside the ship close enough to jump to. Both Robert and Megan leaped from the rail to the roof of the lifeboat, some eight feet below. They then had to crawl on their stomachs to safely get on the lifeboat deck, Mauri said.
The boat carried the Mauris to the beach, where they joined other passengers seeking shelter.
Throughout the ordeal, Robert said, none of the passengers had any idea the ship had struck a rock. Because of the earlier announcement, he thought a generator problem had taken the ship down. It was 30 hours later when he finally saw media reports showing a huge hole in the hull.
Even after being directed to a Hilton Hotel, there was no coordinated assistance from the cruise line, Mauri said. On their own, the Mauris took a hotel shuttle to Rome and went to the U.S. Embassy, where they secured temporary passports to allow them to travel home.
Robert Mauri said he believes the crew’s efforts to minimize the situation caused others to lose their lives. As he and Megan scrambled to find a way off the ship, they saw other passengers just sitting in their rooms. Crew members were telling people to go to their rooms and wait for further instructions.
Mauri said if the crew had not been so concerned about trying to conceal the problem, “you wouldn’t have all these casualties and missing people today.”
Brannon, the Mauris’ lawyer, said it appears the accident itself was the result of misconduct.
“There is so much evidence that this pilot deliberately took the ship close to shore,” Brannon said. “Somebody was showboating,” she said.
Mauri said the worst part of the whole ordeal was the realization that there was no one to look to for guidance as passengers tried to escape the danger. When they asked cruise representatives, no one could tell them what to do. The couple was left to “fend for ourselves through basic instinct,” Mauri said.
The ship’s captain – who claimed he tripped and fell into a lifeboat – remained under house arrest at press time. Brannon said it’s a maritime crime under Italian law for a captain to abandon ship ahead of the passengers.
Brannon – a distant cousin of the Mauris – said she has sent claim notices on behalf of the Mauris to both Costa Cruises of Italy and its U.S. parent, Carnival Cruises. She acknowledged the numerous legal hurdles for passenger claims.
One of those hurdles is the strict limitations in cruise ship ticket contracts. Mauri said he bought their tickets through an agency and never saw the legal disclaimers.
As for the actual tickets, they’re “probably floating off the Tuscan coast,” Brannon said.
Brannon said her research showed the ship owner’s liability could be limited to $71,400 in US dollars for every individual claim, even a death claim. “It’s unbelievable they have something in place that’s this stringent,” she said.
Costa initially offered reimbursement, replacement for property losses and a 30 percent discount on future trips, Brannon said. It was not clear whether that offer was based on a release of claims. “They’re doing everything they can for damage control at this point,” Brannon said.
Later, Costa publicly offered to settle uninjured passenger claims for $14,460 each, along with ticket refunds and costs of the return trip. The offer may be conditioned on release of liability.
While some passengers’ lawyers already have beat a path to courthouse doors in the United States, legal experts say any successful lawsuits will probably have to be filed in Genoa, Italy. The choice of forum language in the ticket contract is said to be unbreakable.
Regardless of the outcome of the lawsuits – there are more than 3,000 potential claims – it’s clear the legal drama will never match the stories of heroism and cowardice on the sea.
“This is going to be a movie for sure – a modern-day ‘Titanic,’” Brannon said.