Top EU Court Says Relatives of Ferry Victims Can Sue in Italy

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

LUXEMBOURG (CN) — The family members of more than 1,000 people killed in a 2006 Egyptian ferry disaster can sue for damages in Italy, where the vessel was certified as safe, Europe’s highest court ruled Thursday.  

The Al Salam Boccaccio 98 ferry, carrying some 1,400 people between Egypt and Saudi Arabia when it sank, was owned by an Egyptian company and flying Panama’s flag, but the European Court of Justice found that the Italian company that certified the vessel as safe can only claim immunity if it was acting on behalf of the Panamanian government. 

Some 300 people were rescued from the Red Sea and, together with relatives of the victims, sued RINA S.p.A and its affiliate, the Ente Registro Italiano Navale, in an Italian court, arguing that the company is liable for the sinking. 

The ferry’s certification was done at the behest of Panama, where the ship was flagged, and RINA argued that a case couldn’t be brought against it because it enjoyed immunity from jurisdiction, a principle of international law that prevents states from suing one another. 

“That immunity is not absolute, but is generally recognized where the dispute concerns sovereign acts performed,” the Luxembourg-based court found, ruling that such immunity is not generally recognized with regard to the certification of ships. 

In 2009, the owner of Al Salam Boccaccio 98, Mamdouh Ismail, was sentenced in an Egyptian court to seven years in jail while two of his employees were sentenced to three years each. 

RINA declared the 35-year-old passenger ferry seaworthy in 1999 after it was purchased by El Salam Maritime Transport, the largest shipping company in Egypt, and flagged in Panama. The ferry, built by an Italian company and originally intended to be used as a passenger ferry in Italy, was retrofitted in 1991 to increase both passenger and car capacity. 

The Court of Justice held Thursday that the fact that RINA had done the certification at the request of the Panamanian government doesn’t mean the company was acting on behalf of the state. 

“The classification and certification operations, such as those carried out on the vessel Al Salam Boccaccio’98 by the RINA companies … cannot be regarded as being carried out in the exercise of public powers within the meaning of EU law,” the ruling states.

The ferry left Duba, Saudi Arabia on Feb. 3, 2006, on route to Safaga, Egypt. Most of the passengers were Egyptian laborers working in construction in Saudi Arabia. 

According to some reports, the vessel was leaning to one side – or listing – when it departed. A fire started on board about 90 minutes into the overnight journey and crew members pumped seawater into the ship in an effort to extinguish it.

Water then pooled to one side of the ferry, which set off the so-called free surface effect, in which a small amount of water shifts from one side of the vessel to another, literally rocking the boat. This can make ships become unstable and it is likely that effect, combined with bad weather and high winds, caused the ferry to sink. 

The Court of Justice ruling, which adopted the recommendation of a court magistrate earlier this year, allows the victims to continue with their proceedings in Genoa, Italy, where RINA is headquartered. 

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