A woman sunbathes in front of the wreckage of capsized cruise liner Costa Concordia near the harbour of Giglio Porto. A US law firm is suing the ship's owners, Carnival, over claims the vessel's design overlooked safety.

A woman sunbathes in front of the wreckage of capsized cruise liner Costa Concordia near the harbour of Giglio Porto. A US law firm is suing the ship's owners, Carnival, over claims the vessel's design overlooked safety. Photo: Reuters

A US law firm said Tuesday it is suing Carnival, the American owner of the cruise liner shipwrecked off Italy this year, for allegedly leading its designers to sacrifice safety for profits.

The Eaves law firm said it was suing for punitive damages in California over the design of the doomed luxury Costa Concordia and hoped that a win would see all similarly designed cruise ships declared unseaworthy.

"This morning we filed a claim for punitive damages against Carnival and the architects who designed the Concordia, for purposefully ignoring safety to maximise profit," lawyer John Arthur Eaves told a Rome press conference.

Eaves, who said he is part of a collective of lawyers representing around 150 claimants from the liner, said the ship's design was fatally flawed "because it was top-heavy and had a propensity to roll".

"The sad tragedy is the race to build the biggest ship with the shallowest hulls and room for the most passengers. When will it stop? We decided we must file this complaint to stop a race which is destroying safety," he said.

The firm alleges Carnival "controlled or at least heavily influenced the design of the MV Costa Concordia to suit its commercial needs as opposed to best or even good marine practices."

It also brought legal proceedings against the architects, named simply as "John Does", for "designing the vessel to maximize passenger carrying capacity, but at the expense of seaworthiness, and passenger safety."

"The ship's shallow draught, the area below the waterline, made it unstable, so that it tilted quickly over and many lifeboats became useless," Eaves said.

The 114,500-tonne ship -- more than twice the size of the Titanic which sank in 1912 -- ran aground on January 13 with 4229 people from 60 countries on board. A total of 32 people were killed, many trapped as the ship rolled.

Lifeboats on one side of the ship failed to deploy because of the tilt, leading dozens to throw themselves into the sea in the night, several of whom died while others were injured in the fall into the freezing waters.

Eaves said the ship's designers had "followed outmoded standards" for a vessel that size, adding that he hoped a win on this case would force the International Maritime Organisation (IMO) to bring in up-to-date rules.

"The problem at the moment is that the IMO's rules are just guidelines. There are no punitive consequences for those who flaunt the rules," he said.

The suit calls on the court to award plaintiffs "at least $US10 million and punitive damages" and Eaves said he expects a ruling within a year.

Should the court find the corporation guilty of using a dangerous design for the Concordia, the ruling may mean "a significant if not majority of the existing cruise fleet would be suspended," he said.

"We have filed this complaint with a great sense of urgency. As things stand at the moment, we're simply sending empty coffins out to sea, just waiting for tragedies to happen," he said.

AFP