Grand Cayman’s waters are celebrated for their crystalline clarity, enabling boaters and snorkelers to enjoy the beauty of our country’s coral reefs from fathoms away. But when those magnificent reefs are damaged or destroyed by visiting vessels, and when the Cayman Islands Port Authority is involved, the situation inevitably seems to become murky.
(We can’t help but be reminded of sea-dwelling cephalopods, such as octopi, squid and cuttlefish, that, when frightened, release clouds of ink in order to confuse and elude predators.)
Case in point: As we reported on the front page of Monday’s Compass, the owners of a cargo ship that struck a reef near the Eden Rock dive site last November are now suing the Port Authority, claiming it was partly responsible for the accident. According to the writ, the owners of the 328-foot MV Saga claim that the Port Authority did not properly mark the location of the reef, and that Port Authority actions taken after the “initial incident” exacerbated the damage to the reef.
(Specifically, the writ alleges the Port Authority instructed the ship to stop its engines, causing it to be blown further into the reef, and alleges the Port Authority directed tugboats to tug the ship sideways across an area of the reef that had not been damaged initially.)
In December, the Saga owners accepted liability for the reef damage and began to undertake the restoration work, according to the Department of Environment. Now, apparently, the company wants the Port Authority to help shoulder some of the financial (and reputational) burden.
We’ll leave it to the courts to sort out the particulars of the Saga situation.
Even in the absence of a court case, as a rule there is little use in querying the Port Authority when accidents are involved.
When the Saga slammed into the coral reef in November, the Compass published three news stories over a four-day span. Here is what the Port Authority had to say to us at the time:
Story One: “Port Authority officials were not available for comment over the weekend.”
Story Two: “The Port Authority would not comment on the accident, directing all questions to the Department of Environment.”
Story Three: After the DOE said the Port Authority was responsible for installing and maintaining navigational markers in the harbor, “The Port Authority did not respond to phone and email requests for a response to the DOE statement.”
In case the pattern isn’t evident, consider this sentence from an October 2016 story about a British couple whose Range Rover suffered nearly $50,000 in damage after the Port Authority dropped the shipping container the vehicle was in: “The Port Authority did not respond to requests for comment on the accident, but has denied responsibility or liability for the damage.”
Going back to the destruction of reef by the mega-yacht Tatoosh in January 2016 and, earlier, by the Carnival Magic cruise ship in August 2014, the Port Authority’s remarks (when they are forthcoming) have been limited to denials of responsibility or liability.
The Port Authority may have a strong legal point. What all of the above situations have in common, apart from the Port Authority’s non-acceptance of blame, is the immunity provision in the Port Authority Law that shields it from liability unless there is “willful neglect or default.”
(It’s the “Section 12” problem – the immunity clauses in various statutes that protect a number of Cayman government agencies when they have harmed people or property.)
Again, we’ll leave any particulars up to judges and magistrates, but even if the Port Authority is not answerable to the courts, it – along with all of our public officials – should be answerable to the public.