Asian Shipowners Deeply Troubled by Prestige Judgment
During its recent interim meeting, the Ship Insurance and Liability Committee of the Asian
Shipowners Forum expressed its deep concern over the recent decision of the Spanish Supreme Court to reverse the findings of the lower court and find that 81-year-old Captain Apostolos Mangouras, the master of the ill-fated Prestige, acted recklessly and was therefore guilty of gross negligence.
In a widely condemned decision in January this year, the Spanish Supreme Court found Mangouras guilty of gross negligence for decisions taken during the voyage and his actions as the accident unfolded. The judgment contains many elements that, in any mariner’s opinion, would be seen as being incredible and unrealistic, said the shipowners’ group in a statement released this week.
The actions of Mangouras were described as exemplary by the vessel’s flag state, as with incredible bravery in very difficult conditions he did all he could to protect his crew, the ship and the environment.
“It is a pity,” said Robert Ho the Chairman of the committee, “that the Spanish Supreme Court has decided to depart from normal and accepted legal process by overturning findings of fact made by a lower court, and substituting findings that cannot, in any event, be seen as credible and plausible. This is a worrying sign that some states, even in apparently well developed countries and by utilizing the highest legal level, would appear willing to manipulate the legal process to meet their short term and political needs.”
The committee commented that it is the coincidence of many factors that result in an accident or incident and to heap full blame on an octogenarian ship’s master some 14 years after the event cannot be correct. The committee expressed concern that everyone involved ashore escaped criminal conviction, despite the fact that the request made by Mangouras in the early stages of the incident for a place of refuge was denied, and subsequent “orders” from ashore did not take the actual situation into account.
It is wrong and deeply troubling, in the committee’s view, that seafarers should be singled out for blame when an incident takes place.
The concerns follow others in the industry. The Supreme Court’s deviation from the findings of the La Coruna court is not only radical but also flies in the face of the courageous example Mangouras set in responding to the emergency, said industry body Intertanko in January.
The Supreme Court notably reinforced the lower court’s acquittal of José Luis López Sors, the former head of Spain’s merchant marine department, who ordered the Prestige to be towed out to sea instead of to a place of refuge where an oil spill could have been contained. In refusing appeals against his acquittal the Spanish state absolves itself from any responsibility for the disaster.
The January 2016 decision hands a civil liability victory to Spain’s government. The judges, headed by Magistrate Ana Ferrer, dismissed liability limitations because they found that the vessel’s master and owner had both acted recklessly. This leaves the P & I insurers potentially facing a claim of up to $1 billion. It is not clear whether the Spanish authorities will seek to recover from other parts of the industry, including the International Oil Pollution Compensation (IOPC) funds.
Ironically, January also saw the launch of Europe’s new guidelines on places of refuge, developed jointly with the shipping industry and with the specific aim of resolving the issues surrounding the granting of a place of refuge. The proper implementation of these guidelines is intended to avoid repeating mistakes made during the Prestige and MSC Flaminia incidents.
Mangouras would be living a very different life had such guidelines been followed in 2002, said Intertanko.