Tuesday, November 11, 2014



South Korea Court Jails Captain of Doomed Ferry For 36 Years (Headline from Reuters full story @ REUTERS)

Photo Original source S.Korean Coast Guard

"(Reuters) - The captain of a South Korean ferry that capsized in April killing 304 passengers was jailed for 36 years on Tuesday after a court found him guilty of negligence, but was acquitted of homicide for which prosecutors had sought the death penalty."   Full Story

 We provided our analysis of this event some time ago and noted that the proximate cause of the accident  was a loss of stability. The proximate cause of that loss of stability was an additional deck added by the ship owner to increase revenues. Ship's officers do their stability calculations based on information contained in their stability letter usually issued after an incline experiment. The incline experiment is supposed to be done under the supervision of the national maritime authority. No one is supposed to add  anything to a vessel that might change it's "righting moment" without first providing a design and technical details to the relevant national shipping authority for review and approval. The classification society and /or national shipping authority are supposed to inspect the vessel during the construction process to assure the new construction adheres to the approved design. When complete the national maritime authority and / or the classification society are supposed to oversee the incline experiment and the issuance of the resulting "stability letter".

 Had the additional deck been added in full compliance with international standards this accident never would have happened. The person most responsible for cutting corners and hiding ill effects was the owner. The South Korean Coast Guard searched for the owner and found him dead by his own hand. The moment we learned that, we expected the worse for the Captain and crew. With the real guilty party gone, and perhaps the second most guilty parties being members of the national shipping authority, and/ or classification societies either beyond the reach of South Korean Courts or closely connected to the government's national shipping authority we suspected the demand for a scapegoat was on. Angry parents wanted the deaths of the captain and crew men, not out of any reasoned consideration, but out of emotional response to an overwhelmingly tragic loss. Despite two sentences of over 30 years for the Captain and one other officer and numerous lengthy sentences for other crew members the parents vigorously protested the court out come. Frankly they wanted the entire crew marched off to the gallows immediately.

 All thirteen of the surviving crew beyond the Captain and one officer who drew 30 years drew sentences of five to 20 years. The one officer who drew 30 years was convicted of homicide for refusing to help two individuals who allegedly could have been helped. Interestingly he drew six years less than the Captain who was not convicted of homicide but of negligence. The other crew members mostly non officers seem to have drawn sentences that are extraordinarily harsh for crew who were not of the decision making level who were for the most part carrying out orders from officers who they had a right to assume were competent. The officers were in turn entitled to the presumption that their stability information was accurate and certainly not inaccurate due to tampering, possibly with official collusion for profit. The real causation chain has yet to be described and with the virtual burial of the captain and crew probably never will be. Perhaps much to the relief of certain members of the government. 

 After the stability malfunction, unpredictable based on the contrived data coming out of the flawed deck addition process there is no doubt that the Captain and others made serious miscalculations and errors of judgement that costs lives. In terms of regulatory and civil law there was no way that any of them were not going to lose their merchant marine occupational licenses and permits, or not be found liable for civil damages that would ruin them for life. Certainly a few who refused to help may have been eligible for some jail time. But instead their lives were demanded by an understandably angry crowd and the government came as close as they could to satisfying the crowd without resorting to judicial murder. 

 Two important things were killed in this judgement. First the lessons that should have been learned about stability regulations and their enforcement including hull addition permitting and post construction testing. Second, if you were a young South Korean considering a career in the merchant marine wouldn't this case give you pause in your career choice? merchant mariners are asked to take command of highly complex and dangerous equipment and shepherd it through its mission in commerce. A life long career with no accidents is difficult to achieve, now you realize that any accident can be criminalized. The officers and crew of this ill fated ferry ended their careers with this accident. They are no longer a danger , if they ever really were to the maritime traveling public. Certainly none woke up on that fateful morning with any intention of harming anyone. As merchant mariners, through the vetting process you can bet that none of the crew had any real past history of anti social behavior they had never been a danger to society. The only conceivable purpose in imposing such harsh criminal sentences is as a deterrent to others. Unfortunately the deterrence is most likely to be against choosing a maritime career. Too many people had their unintentional behavior criminalized to a degree with some of the worse enemies of society. Outside well informed maritime professionals will view these trials as a scapegoat exercise, but the practice is not limited to South Korea but is spreading around the globe including in the United States, where one judge compared an accidental polluter to the NAZI's hanged at Nuremberg. 

 These accidents won't be reduced by discouraging the best and brightest from seeking maritime careers, shifting national shipping to open registries, and forcing individual and corporate legal planning to avoid liabilities. Criminal charges should be leveled only in the face of real criminal acts and intent. Accidents must be thoroughly examined for the real causation matrix. Once found, if criminal charges are warranted, as we feel they were against the ship owner in this incident, so be it. But to impose the harshest possible criminal penalties on the  merely hapless or mistaken is to warn people away from the nautical trades and professions. Thirty six years imposed on a 67 year old Captain is a sentence to die in prison. It serves no purpose protective of society, just protective of the powers that be who don't want things too closely examined.
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