Appeals Court Upholds Prison Sentence for Lost Frigate's Conning Officer

Helge Ingstad
Courtesy Forsvaret

Published Dec 21, 2023 1:51 PM by The Maritime Executive

A court of appeals has affirmed a suspended prison sentence for the watch officer who had the conn when the Norwegian frigate Helge Ingstad collided with a tanker in 2018.

The Ingstad had a head-on collision with the tanker Sola TS off the Sture oil terminal in Norway's Hjeltefjord on November 8, 2018. Despite attempts to keep her afloat, she gradually sank on a rocky seabed near the terminal. Thanks to good fortune and timely damage control, all crew safely escaped, and no major injuries were reported. The vessel was a total loss. 

A report from Norway's Accident Investigation Board found that a significant share of the fault for the collision lay with the Ingstad's watchstanders, who believed that the oncoming tanker was a fixed object. Despite extensive attempts at communication between the tanker, the VTS center and the Ingstad, the frigate's bridge team did not attempt to alter course until it was too late. 

Norwegian prosecutors brought several criminal cases in connection with the casualty, but all were dropped save one. Early this year, the officer of the watch aboard Helge Ingstad was convicted on a charge of criminal negligence. He received a suspended sentence of 60 days in prison. 

The officer - who remains in the Norwegian Navy and has continued to serve in afloat commands in a leadership role - contested the ruling and filed an appeal. Among other claims, he asserted that he should not be the only individual saddled with criminal responsibility for the collision, since he was a newly-minted officer of the watch and there were other people on the bridge. 

In a unanimous verdict, the appeals court found the officer guilty and sentenced him to the same suspended term in prison. 

"The defendant knew the competence and duties of the bridge team. He was responsible for utilizing the bridge team effectively. Nevertheless, he never communicated anything to the others on the bridge about his insecurities related to the object on the starboard side, or requested that the object be checked out," the court ruled. 

Insiders in Norway's defense community have questioned whether the case should have been brought against an individual at all. It is unusual for military officers to face civilian criminal charges for negligent performance in the line of duty; militaries have their own court-martial process for such cases.  

"The warden should not have been charged at all. But the civil justice system and the district attorney have chosen to pursue the case against a person, to go after an individual," said Thor Manum, spokesman for the Norwegian Association of Officers and Specialists (NOF).

Other parties have been held accountable at a corporate level. The owner of the tanker settled a lawsuit with the Norwegian Navy in 2022, paying $27 million for the loss of the frigate. Prosecutors also secured a judgment against the Norwegian state for the Norwegian Navy's alleged negligence, winning a penalty of about $1 million for "negligently having caused marine damage or a similar accident, which could easily have resulted in the loss of human life."