Aug 042008
 

Hear the pitter-patter of running feet? Could be ship managers running to their lawyer’s office, or ambulance-chasing lawyers running after ship managers, following the indictment of Hong Kong-based Fleet Management by the US Department of Justice. It’s a case that could have far-reaching implications on the industry, as BIMCO’s Watchkeeper has observed.

At this moment, at least outside the more voracious media, Fleet Management, like Captain John Cota who conned the containership Cosco Busan when it made contact with the San Francisco-Oakland bridge, is innocent unless the trial, which starts on 17th November, decides otherwise.

Says the DOJ: “Fleet Management, the company responsible for operating the Cosco Busan, was charged today with six felony counts for making false statements and obstruction of justice. According to the indictment, Fleet Management, acting through senior ship officers and shore-based supervisory officials, concealed and covered-up documents with an intent to impede, obstruct and influence the investigation of the spill. The falsified documents include a fictitious passage plan for Nov. 7, 2007, the day of the crash, as well as two prior voyages made after Fleet assumed management of the vessel in October 2007. Fleet’s safety procedures, required by US law, mandated berth-to-berth passage plans for each voyage. However, according to the indictment, Fleet created falsified plans after the crash and concealed and covered up the real ship records.”

At time of writing, the ship’s officers themselves have not be charged, although six of them remain in detention in Los Angeles, where they have been since the incident last November as ‘material witnesses’.

It would be improper to comment on this specific case until after the trial but the allegations seem to be a breach in the wall of that established legal principle by which the Master takes the fall, prehaps a recognition that, in the 21st century, the concept of the master being the sole authority holds less and less water.

In the days before radio, satellite communications and the internet there was no reasonable alternative to the principle of “Master only under God”. A master could not refer decisions upwards to management. Today, management is aboard ship electronically, 24 hours a day, seven days a week, and the master has about the same authority as a truck driver whilst holding far greater responsibility.

The trial of John Cota and Fleet Management will deserve close coverage. Under the microscope, it seems, will be the relationship between pilot and master and the relatiuonship between master and company management. Buy your tickets early.

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