Surveyor’s fall from a stepladder caught on camera in US terminal

The North of England P&I Club has given details of a recent incident involving a surveyor’s fall at a US terminal, such that when a vessel is in port and something happens, there is a strong chance it has being caught on camera.

According to data provided by Gary Hemphill, from Phelps Dunbar LLP, a surveyor onboard a ship moored at a US terminal, fell from the stepladder when departing the vessel. A crew member alerted the Master, who saw the surveyor lying on the concrete wharf apron about 20 feet below with his leg badly broken.

The terminal operator contacted emergency medical personnel and the injured surveyor was taken away by ambulance. The ship’s crew took photographs of the surveyor as he lay on the wharf apron and as he was loaded into the ambulance.

The Master interviewed crew members who were on watch at the time and they all prepared written statements of what they had observed.

The witnesses’ recollections were consistent – the surveyor descended to almost the bottom of the ladder when he lost his footing and fell a short distance. They all gave the opinion that the surveyor fell because of being overweight. The P&I club was not notified of the incident before the ship sailed.

Several months later, litigation was commenced and the shipowner forwarded to their P&I club the written statements given by the crew at the time of the incident.

Because these statements tended to indicate the fault for the incident lay with the surveyor, the club initially took the position there was no liability and proceeded to defend the case accordingly.

Discovery

However, during the course of discovery it was learned that the terminal had a closed-circuit television camera (CCTV) as part of its security system. The entire incident was captured on video.

The video showed, contrary to the written statements of the crew, that the surveyor fell from the top of the ladder, not just a step or two as the crew witnesses had said, but approximately 20 feet.

Under US law, the crew’s written statements would be produced to the plaintiff’s attorney in the course of pre-trial discovery.

Because the statements were demonstrably false, the crew would have been easily discredited at trial. This means the ship would have been unable to call any credible eyewitnesses in an effort to defend the case.

Lessons learned

North Club provided several lessons to be learned:
– Always assume that any incident occurring at a terminal in the US has been captured by closed-circuit television cameras.
– Be aware that false written statements could conceivably be contradicted by irrefutable video evidence.
– Always notify the relevant parties, such as the P&I club’s local correspondent, as soon as possible so they can attend on board before sailing. The correspondent is likely to know if the terminal has a closed-circuit television security system, and their investigation would have been guided accordingly.
– If the correspondent is a lawyer, then any written crew statements prepared by the correspondent might be protected from discovery by the attorney-client privilege.
– The photographs taken by the crew showing the badly broken leg of the surveyor would have to be disclosed to the other side during the discovery process and might not have been helpful had the matter proceeded to trial. To the contrary, they would have demonstrated to the jury how severe the plaintiff’s injury actually was. The lesson is that any pictures taken are disclosable, regardless of whose case they assist.
– It is important that when any incident occurs, especially in the US, the master notifies the shipowner and the P&I club as soon as possible so that the required investigations can be carried out.

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