The disaster of the Herald of Free Enterprise at Zeebrugge in 1987 Everyone remembers the tragedy of the Herald of Free Enterprise, the ferry which capsized off Zeerbrugge with the loss of 193 lives in march 1987. The official inquiry into the disaster headed by mr justice sheen found that the ship had foundered just outside Zeerbugge harbour after the main car deck doors had been left open to the sea. The bow doors should have been shut by the assistant bosum, who told the inquiry he had gone to his cabin and fallen asleep. He did not hear the call to harbour stations and awoke only on being tipped out of his bunk as the ship capsized. The Sheen inquiry held that the ship’s duty captain was seriously negligent in taking the ferry to sea with the bow doors fully open. The inquiry alleged that the first oficer was responsible for checking that .the doors had been closed, although he also had to obey another instruction to take up harbour position on the bridge. His conduct was judged by the inquiry to have been irresponsible. The ship”s senior master of the Townsend Car Ferries fleet, although he was not on board at the time of the disaster was criticised for failing to issue clear orders about closing the doors. Consequently the certifieate of competence of the ship’s duty captain was suspended for a year whereas the certificate of competence of the senior master was ordered to be suspended for two years and not restored unless he passed a medical examination when the period expires. Mr Justice Sheen also severeły criticised the company owning the ferry, Townsend Car Fernies, stating that from top to bottom the body corporate was infected with disease of sloppiness. The company was at fault at all levels, from the board of directors to the managers, to the marine departments, down to the junior superintendents, he concluded. Directors had failed to appreciate their responsibility for safety on their ships. A separate legal investigation, under Judge Arthur d”Hoest, was begun by the Belgian authorities soon after tbe disaster but has apparently not yet reached any conclusion. In October 1987 three judges in a Divisional Court case, arising out of the inquest into the ZEERBRUGGE death, indicated that it was possible in appropriate circumstances and where there was sufflcient evidence, for a limited company to be prosecuted for manslaughter. But the court rejected an application by lawyers acting for families of the disaster victims for judicial review of the coroner”s decisions preventing the jury from considering a verdict of corporate manslaughter against the ferry owners. Yet they ruled the coroner had been right to find in this case that there was no evidence that the company had been guilty of unlawful killing. The ship’s duty captain has denied the disaster inquiry’s charge of negligence. He challenged the finding in the High Court but was unsuccessful. The police inquiry began in Noyember 1987, a month after the inquest at Doyer returned verdicts of unlawful killing in 187 cases. Police spoke to all 600 officers on the P&O ships (P&O European Ferries took over Townsend Car Ferries, the owners of the Herald of Free Enterprise two months before the disaster) in a full-scale intensive investigation. During the police inquiry it emerged that five Townsend ferries had sailed with open bow doors between 1983 aud March 1987. After the investigation the Crown Prosecution Service issued in June 1989 the summonses against PSiO European Ferries. The former directors of P&O and four seamen are to be prosecuted for manslaughter. The decision to bring the first major manslaughter charges against a public corporation creates legal history by testing the laws concerning corporate liability for a disaster. A couple of charges of corporate manslaughter were laid in the 1920s, but nothing on this scale (numbers on the Herald of Free Enterprise were greater than normal on the day of the disaster because readers of the Sun newspaper had made of a special deal allowing return trips for 1USD). This really is untested law. While charges of manslaughter against individuals, who are alleged to have caused the death of others by recklessness or gross negligence are quite common, there is no precedent in the English law of successful prosecution for corporate manslaughter. But in a judicial report of the decision of the coroner”s inquest, brought in October 1987 by the Herald Famiilies Association, the High Court ruled that it was tentatively prepared to accept that a corporate body was capable of being found guilty of manslaughter. Legal specialists say that the law provides for the prosecution for an offence such as manslaughter, as long as the offence is not incapable of being performed by a company and providing the penalty is not a mandatory prison sentence. According to their opimon, a charge of murder would not be brought against a company but a charge of manslaughter could. In a case in 1927 it was heid that a corporation could not be indicted for manslaughter but the correctness of that decision was questioned in a decision of the courts in 1944. In a case before Glamorgan Assizes in 1960, a company responsible for building a bridge which caused deaths when it collapsed was prosecuted for manslaugter. The jury found the company not guilty on the facts, but there was no argument that the case had been wrongly brought. In the case of Tesco v. Natrass, the former master of the Rolls, Lord Denning said that in any organisation some people were the directing minds and some were mere hands. A company could be responsible for its directing minds had done something in its name that was criminal. If the cases are proved the former directors and the members of the crew face a maximum penaity of life imprisonment and the company an unlimited fine. The cases could have important implication for investigations into other incidents that followed within the next 18 months after the disaster at Zeerbrugge, including the King”s Cross underground disaster, where The Crown Prosecution Service decided there was insufficient evidence to bring such charges against London Regional Transport. The summonses against the dirctors and the company are said to be a major step towards improving safety because they could demonstrate that people running companies are liable for their actions.