Lack of Control a Major Accident Concern

By MarEx 2014-04-28 20:00:00

Attorney Brian Beckcom of VB Attorneys offers expert opinion and expresses significant concerns over safety issues in outsourcing shipping business to foreign governments following the crash of the South Korean Sewol ferry:

In the devastating crash on April 16th, in which South Korea's president accuses the captain and crew of "unforgivable, murderous behavior", the ship suddenly listed, took in a significant amount of water, and ultimately capsized. Within two hours, the ship, which was carrying 476 passengers—over 300 of which were high school students—was submerged. Now, over 180 of the ship’s 476 passengers were confirmed dead and, besides the 174 passengers rescued on the first day, no survivors have been found.

The ferry—which was being operated by an inexperienced third mate who had never navigated the waters where the accident occurred, and despite a request made by the captain on April 1st for repairs to the steering gear—was carrying over 3,600 tons of cargo, even though a load of 987 tons was recommended.

Although the marine traffic controller instructed the captain, 68-year-old Lee Joon-seok, to “make the passengers escape”, Lee instead told passengers to stay in their rooms and waited more than half an hour to give the evacuation order while he and many of his crew became the first to escape. Also, although crew members claimed that it was impossible to launch lifeboats while the Sewol was sinking, photos show a Coast Guard officer managing the task during the initial rescue efforts.

In a statement which was issued on a government website and translated by the Associated Press, South Korea’s president, Park Geun-hye, stated, "What the captain and part of the crew did is unfathomable from the viewpoint of common sense, unforgivable, murderous behavior…Legally and ethically, this is an unimaginable act.”

Captain Lee, as well as a number of other crew members who abandoned ship, have been arrested or detained on charges of negligence and abandoning the passengers.

Beckcom has represented injured parties in a number of maritime cases where lack of control in foreign waters was a serious concern, including the famous case with the Maersk Alabama, which is portrayed in the movie Captain Phillips. His experience has shown how critical it is that safety measures are followed in the event of an emergency. He states that this tragedy “shows just how important it is for governments to tightly monitor and police the safety and seamanship standards for all vessels, particularly those entrusted with carrying passengers.”

What is particularly concerning in this circumstance is that Chonghaejin Marine Co., which operated Sewol, spent only $521 on crew training last year, including evacuation drills. Now, with hundreds confirmed dead and hundreds more still missing after safety protocol was not followed, concern over lack of control and safety in foreign waters is again brought to the forefront.

Beckcom urges our government to strengthen—not weaken—the U.S. law that regulates our U.S. fleet, namely the Jones Act. “To those calling on our government to relax the Jones Act standards that have served us well for almost a century,” Beckcom poses the question, “Do we really want to relinquish control of our merchant fleet to foreign companies with such lax safety standards?”

He further states that “the Jones Act protects our maritime industry from dangerous operators, protects our kids and our marine workers from lax safety standards, and protects our environment and national defense from sub-standard foreign operators. We need to learn our lessons when it comes to maritime safety and security. This latest disaster only serves to reinforce what the primary lesson should be for Americans—that is, the Jones Act may be “protectionist,” but it protects more than companies; it protects each and every citizen of this nation.”

Based in Houston, Texas, VB Attorneys works with personal injury cases. The attorneys at VB Attorneys have been recognized on a national and international level with their handling of numerous cases, including the case involving Captain Phillips and the Maersk Alabama.