The Costa Concordia disaster is now in the courts and questions of blame, cruise ship safety and the effect on the industry are once again hot issues.   

Passions have been reignited after a pre-trial hearing into the Costa Concordia disaster held in the Tuscan city of Grosseto on Saturday March 3, 2012.

Fearing for his safety, Francesco Schettino, the captain of the vessel, was not in attendance, but his lawyer, Bruno Leporatti, reportedly told prosecutors that Costa had instructed the captain to perform the fateful sail-by to please passengers and attract publicity.

The judge at the hearing has assigned four experts to analyse the cruise ship’s data recorder and to report their findings on July 21. Leporatti told reporters that the captain expects the findings to confirm Costa’s role.

Leporatti has also told prosecutors that Schettino was not wearing his glasses at the time of collision and had asked his first officer to check the radar for him.

Adding to the controversy, two female ex-crew members have reportedly described to prosecutors a culture of cocaine consumption, alcoholism and sexual harassment aboard the ship, with one of the women stating that Schettino “used women as goods to be exchanged”. The second woman, identified as Mary G, told prosecutors, “Very often the officers and other members of the crew were drunk. Often we’d say to ourselves, ‘If there’s an emergency, who’s going to save the ship?'”

Costa Cruises is offering compensation packages to survivors of €11,000 ($13,730), but many survivors have taken legal action against the ship’s owners in France, Germany and the United States. One such case is a US$523 million lawsuit in Florida, home of the Carnival Corporation.

The cruise ship safety issues raised by the incident continue to be a subject of much debate. Costa Concordia sank three hours into her journey when no safety briefing had occurred – a fact that many say compounded the disaster. But while Cruise Lines International Association, European Cruise Council and the Passenger Shipping Association issued a statement in February that muster drills, which previously were only required 24 hours after embarkation, will now be obligatory on their ships before departure, some say this is not enough. Jim Walker, an admiralty and maritime personal injury lawyer, points out on his website Cruise Law News that if cruise lines fail to follow this voluntary agreement, there is no penalty.

Numerous cruise-ship-classification societies, however, have started investigations into more innovative systems of evacuation, the criminalisation of sail-bys and curbing the current power afforded to captains.

As for the disaster’s effect on bookings, cruise agents report that while on the whole regular cruisers remain unfazed, they regularly receive anxious calls from pre-booked first-time cruisers questioning the safety record of their ship. The Australian cruise industry is as healthy as ever, however, with little reported effect on bookings after the disaster.

Costa Cruises has not fared well, however. The cruise line’s bookings have dropped by one-third since the disaster and its reputation was further dented by the fire on board Costa Allegra that crippled the ship in the Indian Ocean, just six weeks after Concordia went down.