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Costa Conordia Legal Probe Begins Into Deaths Of 32 People

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Experts have started reviewing the evidence into the Costa Concordia disaster, which left 32 people dead, marking the start of legal proceedings into the tragedy, lawyers for the victims said.

A judge yesterday appointed four experts who on March 9 will start an investigation into the incident, which happened when the liner ran into a reef and capsized off the Tuscan island of Giglio, to help the court in deciding its verdict in the criminal courts.

The incident, which happened in January, left 25 dead with seven more people missing and presumed dead.

Captain Francesco Schettino, who made an unauthorised diversion from his programmed route, has been placed under house arrest, accused of manslaughter, causing a shipwreck and abandoning his ship.

Lawyers representing victims and their families today said reports by the four experts, appointed at the hearing in the Tuscan city Grosetto, are due to be presented on July 21.

Law firm Irwin Mitchell is representing dozens of passengers and crew, mainly British, who were on board.

Head of travel law Clive Garner said: "Our clients have been through what was a horrendous experience and many regard themselves as lucky to be alive.

"We and our clients view this court hearing as the first step towards getting some essential answers as to how this tragedy was allowed to occur.

"Today's hearing dealt with preliminary issues including the instruction of experts and timetabling of the next steps in the criminal process.

"It is now crucial that the experts reports are prepared in time for the next hearing in July. The experts will have access to all available evidence from the ship, the coast guard, the police, witnesses and the Costa cruise line.

"Their conclusions should assist the Italian court in reaching its conclusions in relation to criminal charges.

"The experts' reports should also be helpful in establishing how much blame the Costa cruise line has to bear.

"The findings of the experts in this regard could have a significant effect on the civil proceedings and the value of damages ultimately recovered by victims in their fight for justice."

As well as physical injuries from the evacuation process, many are experiencing symptoms of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), he said.

Victims represented by Irwin Mitchell include singer Amelia Leon, a passenger on board the ship at the time it ran aground but who also previously sang on board the Costa Allegra.

The 22-year-old, who lives in London, said: "I am still in shock about what happened and it upsets me to even think about it at the moment.

"I used to sing on board cruise ships but I can't imagine ever wanting to go on another one. I can't believe so many people have died from a mistake which could and should have been avoided.

"It's important to me, and I'm sure everyone else who was on the ship at the time, that we finally get some answers and an explanation as to how our lives were put in danger. It's the very least we deserve."

Mark Thomas, father of 19-year-old dancer James Thomas - labelled the 'human ladder' after helping others to safety by allowing them to climb over his body - was still recovering from knowing his son was caught up in the tragedy when he learned the Costa Allegra had caught fire in the Indian Ocean with his daughter Rebecca, also a dancer, on board.

Mr Thomas, from Walsall, said: "To have one child involved in something like this is bad enough but to have both caught up in incidents on Costa liners is just too much.

"Questions have to be asked, not just about the safety on the Concordia which must have been flawed, but also across the fleet. Two incidents like this in less than two months raises some serious issues which the firm has to deal with.

"Mark is still very badly affected by the Concordia incident and it will take him some time to get over the dreadful experience he and his fellow passengers and crew were forced to endure through no fault of their own. I just hope Rebecca doesn't face the same problems when she returns home.

"Mark and I will be watching proceedings in Grosetto very closely. It's time for answers and for Costa to show everyone the steps they have taken to ensure that the safety of passengers in the future will be assured."

Mr Garner said the stories Irwin Mitchell had heard from Costa Concordia passengers were "utterly shocking" and the incident itself had been compounded by the "woeful management" of the evacuation.

"We regret that despite the well-publicised evidence, Costa are yet to formally admit liability or make considered and appropriate offers in respect of our clients' cases," he added.

He said they hoped the hearing would prompt the company to seek to resolve passengers' claims on terms taking into account their individual losses and injuries and had invited Costa and their representatives to meet to discuss the matter further and seek to resolve the issue of liability swiftly.

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