ROME Costa Cruises has offered 11,000 euros ($14,500) in compensation to each of the more than 3,000 passengers aboard its liner that ran aground and capsized two weeks ago, Italian consumer groups said on Friday.
The offer is an attempt by Costa Cruises to limit the legal fallout of the accident off the coast of Italy.
Each passenger on the Costa Concordia will also receive a refund on the cruise and the costs of their return home. The offer applies to all passengers, whether child or adult, who suffered no physical injuries.
Injured passengers will be dealt with individually.
Sixteen bodies have been recovered after the 290-metre long cruise liner, with more than 4,200 passengers and crew on board, struck a rock near the Tuscan island of Giglio.
The ship's captain, Francesco Schettino, is under house arrest and is blamed for causing the accident by steering too close to the island's shore.
Costa Cruises' U.S. parent company Carnival Plc is already facing legal action for compensation. Those accepting Friday's offer will have to agree to drop all future litigation, and receive payment within seven days.
Codacons, a consumer group which did not participate in the negotiations, is collecting names for a class action suit to be filed in Miami requesting 125,000 euros for each passenger.
Carlo Rienzi, president of Codacons, said the offer was insufficient and urged passengers to see a doctor to check whether they had suffered psychological trauma.
John Arthur Eaves, a U.S. personal injury lawyer, is urging passengers to file individual lawsuits in the United States. Eaves represented families of some of those killed when a U.S. military jet struck and severed cables holding skiers in a cable car in northern Italy in 1998, killing 20.
"The class action is not the right tool for this case," Eaves told Reuters Television. "In this case people need to be treated like individuals. Everyone in this boat had different damages."
But Roberto Corbella, head of Italy's association of tour operators, and who helped Costa negotiate the offer with the consumer protection groups, urged passengers to accept it.
"Lawsuits have uncertain outcomes, they take a long time, there are legal costs, and some studies indicate that it's not at all certain that passengers would get more than the company is offering," he said.
Crew member Gary Lobaton has already filed a lawsuit against
Carnival in a U.S. district court. His lawyers said in his court filing that he was not aware of the "dangerous conditions" of the cruise ship until it was too late to abandon it safely.
Keiko Guest, a photographer from Atlanta, was a passenger on the Concordia and she said she may consider the offer as long as the equipment she lost was covered by it.
"If they would return my stuff to me alongside this money offer I'd feel better," she said. "I don't know how appealing it will be for some people" who lost $10,000 rings.
Passengers have complained the evacuation was chaotic, with some left waiting in lifeboats for two hours before being able to leave the ship. Several bodies were found by divers in submerged evacuation assembly points, wearing life vests.
On Thursday, Italy's top-ranking Coast Guard official, Marco Brusco, said Schettino lost "a precious hour" which made evacuating the ship more difficult.
Had the order been given earlier "the lifeboats could have been launched calmly, people could have been reassured," Brusco said in Senate testimony.
As divers searched the submerged parts of the ship, Dutch salvage team SMIT finalized preparations to remove fuel from its tanks.
"We could finish today the process of inserting valves on six tanks," said a spokesman for the civil protection agency, which is in charge of operations. That would open the way for fuel removal to begin on Saturday or Sunday.
Many other toxic materials are still onboard the Concordia, including a ton of chlorine to disinfect pools, insecticides, and detergents, according to a list of products distributed by Italian officials. ($1 = 0.7601 euros)
(Additional reporting by Emilio Parodi on Giglio, Gabriele Pileri in Rome, and Tom Hals in Wilmington, Delaware.; Editing by Myra MacDonald)