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Wrecked cruise ship passengers offered $14,460 plus travel, medical costs

The company that owns the Costa Concordia is offering $14,460 per passenger to cover the cost of cruise tickets and travel expenses, but many passengers have declined the deal. NBC's Brian Williams reports.

Updated at 2:35 p.m. ET: ROME -- Passengers who were on the Costa Concordia are being offered $14,460 apiece to compensate them for their lost baggage and psychological trauma after the cruise ship ran aground and capsized off Tuscany when the captain deviated from his route.

In addition to the lump-sum indemnity, Costa, a unit of the world's biggest cruise operator, the Miami-based Carnival Corp., also said it would reimburse uninjured passengers the full costs of their cruise, their return travel expenses and any medical expenses they sustained after the grounding.

The deal does not apply to the hundreds of crew on the ship, many of whom have lost their jobs, the roughly 100 people who were injured in the chaotic evacuation or the families who lost loved ones. Sixteen bodies have already been recovered from the disaster and another 16 people who were on board are missing and presumed dead.

The agreement was announced Friday after a day of negotiations between Costa representatives and Italian consumer groups representing 3,206 people from 61 countries who suffered no physical harm when the Costa Concordia hit a reef on Jan. 13.

Passengers are free to pursue legal action on their own if they aren't satisfied with the deal and it was clear Friday — two weeks after the grounding — that some would.

Survivors of the Costa Concordia are realizing the limits of their legal claims, as they signed away their rights when they bought their tickets. NBC's Kerry Sanders reports on what travelers should know.

"We're very worried about the children," said Claudia Urru of Cagliari, Sardinia, who was on board the ship with her husband and two sons aged 3 and 12. Her eldest child, she said, is seeing a psychiatrist: He won't speak about the incident or even look at television footage of the grounding.

"He's terrorized at night," she told The Associated Press. "He can't go to the bathroom alone. We're all sleeping together, except my husband, who has gone into another room because we don't all fit."

As a result, she said, her family has retained a lawyer because they don't know what the real impact — financial or otherwise — of the trauma will be. She said her family simply isn't able to make such decisions now.

"We are having a very, very hard time," she said.

Some consumer groups have already signed on as injured parties in the criminal case against the Concordia's captain, Francesco Schettino, who is accused of manslaughter, causing a shipwreck and abandoning the ship before all those aboard were evacuated. He is under house arrest.

In addition, Codacons, one of Italy's best-known consumer groups, has engaged two U.S. law firms to launch a class-action lawsuit against Costa and Carnival in Miami, claiming that it expects to get anywhere from $164,000 to $1.3 million per passenger.

German attorney Hans Reinhardt, who currently represents 15 Germans who survived the accident and is in talks to represent families who lost loved ones, said he is advising his clients not to take the settlement.

Instead, he, like Codacons, is working with the U.S. law firm to pursue the class-action suit in Miami.

But Roberto Corbella, who represented Costa in the negotiations, said the deal provides passengers with quick and "generous" restitution that consumer groups estimate could amount to some $18,500 per passenger when it includes the other reimbursements.

"The big advantage that they have is an immediate response, no legal expenses, and they can put this whole thing behind them," he told AP.

Passengers who want to file a lawsuit in U.S. courts over the cruise ship disaster will likely face choppy seas. That's because the ticket contract includes what's known as a "choice of forum" clause stating that lawsuits must be filed in Italy.

Depending on each country's laws, passengers can be at a sharp disadvantage compared to the U.S. legal system. Italy, for example, requires plaintiffs to post a judiciary tax that is a certain percentage for larger amounts of damages, said attorney Bob Peltz, chairman of the Cruise Line Committee of the Maritime Law Association.

Maritime law experts say that similar attempts to sue in the U.S. despite these clauses have been turned away by the U.S. Supreme Court and that the expense of filing a lawsuit in a foreign court has deterred many plaintiffs in the past.

"It's well-settled law," said Jerry Hamilton, a maritime attorney who regularly defends cruise lines against lawsuits. "The Supreme Court has said those clauses are valid clauses. They will be upheld."

The clauses in the cruise industry are not as common in other forms of travel. Lawsuits against airlines, for example, can be brought virtually anyplace they do business for domestic flights; for international flights, lawyers can generally sue in the airline's home location or where the flight departed, among other venues.

In an exclusive interview, the captain of the Costa Concordia says he feels as if his company has abandoned him as new video emerges from the day of the ship disaster. NBC's Michelle Kosinski reports.

At least one lawsuit has been filed against Carnival and Costa in U.S. courts, by Peruvian crew member Gary Lobaton. That case, filed in Chicago federal court on Thursday, seeks class-action status to represent all passengers and 1,000 crew members. It blames the companies for negligence because of an unsafe evacuation and seeks at least $100 million in damages, attorney Monica Kelly said in an email to the Associated Press on Friday.

Peltz said that case has two big problems: The passengers are covered by the forum clause, and crew members likely have contracts requiring them to submit first to arbitration.

"I think they are going to have a difficult time," he said of the Chicago lawsuit. 

The lawsuit sought to determine whether Carnival deviated from international safety standards when operating the cruise ship.

"Costa Concordia's Captain, Francesco Schettino, delayed the order to abandon ship and deploy the lifeboats," Lobaton's lawyers said in the filing.

Schettino has admitted he had taken the ship on "touristic navigation" near Giglio but has said the rocks he hit weren't charted on his nautical maps.

Codacons has called for a criminal investigation into the not-infrequent practice of "tourist navigation" — steering huge cruise ships close to shore to give passengers a view of key sites.

The chief executive of Costa, Pier Luigi Foschi, told Italian lawmakers this week that "tourist navigation" wasn't illegal, and was a "cruise product" increasingly sought out by passengers and offered by cruise lines to try to stay competitive.

Neither Costa nor Carnival would comment about potential lawsuits. The case is Gary Lobaton vs Carnival Corp, Case No. 1:12-cv-00598, U.S. District Court, Northern District of Illinois, Eastern Division.

Authorities have now identified the bodies of three German passengers recovered from the Costa Cruises ship that capsized off the coast of Italy earlier this month. Meanwhile, the children of a American couple still missing after the disaster have released a new statement. NBC's Michelle Kosinski reports.

Search efforts for the missing resumed Friday as salvage crews set up to begin extracting some 500,000 tons of heavy fuel oil on Saturday before it leaks into the pristine waters surrounding the ship. That pumping operation is expected to last nearly a month.

Italy's civil protection office on Friday released a list of some of the other possibly toxic substances aboard the cruise liner, including 50 liters of insecticide and 41 cubic meters of lubricants, among other things.

But so far, even though some film has been detected in the waters around the ship, tests on the waters indicate nothing outside the norm, according to Tuscany's regional environment agency.

"Toxic tests have all resulted negative," the agency said.

The crystal clear seas around Giglio are a haven for scuba divers and form part of a marine sanctuary for dolphins, porpoises and whales.

DigitalGlobe

The Costa Concordia, carrying more than 4,200 passengers, ran aground Jan. 13 off the coast of Italy. At least 15 people died in the accident, and rescuers continue to search for others missing.

 

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The Associated Press and Reuters contributed to this report.