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Web alert: England: Court of Appeal considers an owner/employers actions in refusing to pay contractual benefits in light of possible suicide of crewmember

19 June 2013

The Court of Appeal in England & Wales recently gave judgment in a claim for personal injuries brought by the dependants of a deceased crewmember where the shipowner and employer refused to pay contractual benefits in light of the possible suicide of the crewmember.

On 11 May 2009 the “BRITISH UNITY” was in the mid-North Atlantic, sailing between Sweden and New York. Between 01:00 and 07:00 that morning the Chief Engineer, Mr Renford Braganza, vanished. It was agreed by all concerned that on the following morning the engine room was to have been opened to the elements to enable maintenance work to be carried out. It was the case of Mr Braganza’s widow that her husband had gone onto deck to check the weather in preparation for this work and that he had somehow fallen overboard whilst doing so.

Mrs Braganza  commenced claims in both tort and contract against both the shipowner and employer/manager. The widow argued that the defendants were liable in negligence for the death of her husband. She also claimed contractual death-in-service benefits of US$ 230,000. The contract stated that benefits were not payable “if, in the opinion of the Company…the death…resulted from….the Officer’s wilful act, default or misconduct”. The defendants denied liability for both claims and in respect of the contractual claim argued that they had reasonably formed the view that Mr Braganza’s death resulted from his wilful act, namely suicide.

At first instance the High Court in London dismissed the tort claim finding that there was insufficient evidence to be satisfied, on a balance of probabilities, that Mr Braganza’s death was accidental and caused by the negligence of the defendants. However, the claim in contract was allowed with the judge holding that the defendants failed to apply the correct legal test (that of identifying cogent evidence proportionate to the seriousness of the finding of suicide). The defendants appealed in respect of this finding.

Overturning the previous decision the Court of Appeal held that lay bodies, namely the two defendants, could not reasonably be expected to apply a legal test in order to reach a conclusion as to what had occurred. The defendants were not lawyers and should not need to apply legal principals in reaching a decision. It was also held that it was entirely reasonable for the defendants to reach a decision that Mr Braganza’s death was likely to have been suicide. They had carefully investigated the whole history of the matter and took account of the work-related reasons for Mr Braganza to have been on deck at the material time. The Court of Appeal held that in the absence of an explanation as to how Mr Braganza could have simply fallen overboard it was not unreasonable for the defendants to reach the conclusion of suicide.

In dealing with incidents involving death or injury to crew or passengers Members are reminded of the need to undertake detailed and full investigations as to the circumstances of an incident and record the findings of those investigations carefully and preferably in writing.

A copy of the full judgment of the Court of Appeal can be found at: http://www.bailii.org/cgi-bin/markup.cgi?doc=/ew/cases/EWHC/Comm/2012/1423.html