EU Adviser Says Ferry Disaster Claims Can Be Heard in Italian Courts

The Al-Salam Boccaccio 98 in Genoa, Italy, in 2001. (Photo via Carlo Martinelli/Wikipedia Commons)

(CN) – The relatives of more than 1,000 people killed in a disastrous ferry accident in the Red Sea in 2006 should be allowed to pursue their claims for damages in Italy, a European Union court magistrate said Tuesday.

That’s the nonbinding opinion of European Court of Justice Advocate General Maciej Szpunar in a case involving claims by the relatives of victims and survivors of the sinking of the Al Salam Boccaccio 98 ferry brought against a major Italian company that certified the ferry as safe.

The opinions of advocates general are not legally binding on the EU’s top court but they often foreshadow how the court will rule. An EU advocate general is a senior law officer whose role is to provide impartial legal advice to the court on new points of law.

More than 1,000 people were killed when the Al Salam Boccaccio 98 sank on Feb. 3, 2006, in the Red Sea between Saudi Arabia and Egypt. It was one of the worst maritime accidents in modern times.

In 2009, an Egyptian appeals court found the vessel’s owner, Mamdouh Ismail, guilty of involuntary negligence and sentenced him to seven years in prison. The ship was allegedly operating despite serious defects.

The ferry was flying a Panamanian flag but it was certified by Italian companies that specialize in assessing the safety of sea vessels, RINA S.p.A and its affiliate, the Ente Registro Italiano Navale. Both are based in the major Italian port city of Genoa.

According to RINA’s website, it is authorized to act on behalf of more than 115 countries to classify ships and it is the world’s leader in classifying ferries.

Even though the ship was registered in Panama, Szpunar said the disaster’s victims should be allowed to seek damages in Italian courts against RINA and its affiliate.

In 2013, survivors and victims’ relatives filed for damages in the Court of Genoa against RINA and Ente Registro Italiano Navale. The plaintiffs argued that certifying the ship as ready for use caused the shipwreck.

The defendants argue they were acting on behalf of Panama and therefore should be legally shielded.

The Court of Genoa is seeking an opinion from the Luxembourg-based European Court of Justice on whether it should grant immunity to the Italian companies or allow the case to proceed.

Szpunar argued that immunity does come into play when a dispute concerns “acts performed in the exercise of state authority,” according to his opinion.

But on matters that “do not fall within the competence of public powers,” immunity does not necessarily apply, the advocate general said.

The Italian entities were delegated by Panama the power to classify and certify the vessel, but their work “cannot be regarded as proceeding from the exercise of public powers” and therefore cannot benefit from immunity, the opinion states.

RINA did not immediately respond to a request for comment Tuesday. Lawyers for the plaintiffs could not be reached.

The Italian-made ship sank during an overnight crossing between Saudi Arabia and Egypt with more than 1,400 people aboard, most of them Egyptians returning home from work in Saudi Arabia. A fire aboard the vessel and weather conditions are believed to have contributed to the ship’s sinking, according to investigators.

(Courthouse News reporter Cain Burdeau is based in the European Union.)

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