A vessel owner has a legal duty to provide a safe way for people to get on and off the vessel, such as a gangway. What happens when someone attempts to board the vessel while intoxicated and suffers an injury? Is the vessel owner liable? Surprisingly, the answer may be “yes”, although significant comparative fault may be assessed against the intoxicated person.
Weissbach v. Matson Navigation Company, 345 F.Supp 1176 (N.D. Cal. 1972) involved a seaman who, while on shore leave, spent the afternoon and evening in a pierside bar, drinking to the point of intoxication. The bartender asked two bar patrons to assist Weissbach back to his vessel, S.S. Californian. While on the gangway boarding the vessel, Weissbach lurched and fell overboard onto the ship’s camels, suffering severe injuries including fractures of the low back, left heel, and left wrist. Although Weissbach admitted he was highly intoxicated at the time of his injury, he sued his employer, Matson. He alleged Matson was negligent by having loose safety chains on the gangway and by not providing a safety net under the gangway. Matson argued Weissbach was grossly negligent and that his drunken condition was the sole cause of his injuries. Matson also argued Weissbach was not acting in the course of his employment at the time of the injury.
The court first rejected Matson’s argument that Weissbach was not acting within the course of his employment when he was injured. It reasoned shore leave is a right of every seaman and a necessity of a seaman’s life. It noted Weissbach had to return to the ship to perform his seaman’s duties and “it is certainly not unreasonable for the seaman’s employer to anticipate that its employees might imbibe while off the ship.”
The court found the chains on the gangway were loose at the time of the injury which violated a federal statute. However, the court found the violation did not cause or contribute to the injury. It noted even if the chains on the gangway had not been loose, Weissbach still would have fallen over them. Accordingly, the court held Matson could not have done anything to prevent the accident with the chains.
Although the court did not find Matson liable to Weissbach because of the loose chains, it did hold Matson liable because it failed to have a safety net rigged at the foot of and under the gangway in violation of a federal regulation. The court noted the purpose of such a net is not to prevent people from falling off the gangway but rather to prevent an injury if they do. It held the lack of a safety net constituted negligence which contributed in a significant way to Weissbach’s injuries.
The court held Weissbach was entitled to recover $30,000 for lost future wages and $20,000 for pain and suffering. It then reduced the award by 60% finding Weissbach was also negligent by being intoxicated.
Brennan v. Matson Navigation Company, 345 F.Supp.1179 (N.D. Cal. 1972) was a companion case to the Weissbach case. Brennan was one of the two bar patrons who helped Weissbach back to the vessel from the pierside bar. When Brennan arrived at the bar, Weissbach was already there and had been drinking during the afternoon and evening. Brennan had at least one drink. The bartender asked him and another patron to help Weissbach back to his vessel. They were able to get Weissbach to the gangway. However, when Weissbach lurched and fell overboard, he knocked Brennan overboard onto the ship’s camels which caused Brennan to suffer a back injury. A police officer on the scene believed Brennan was drunk.
Brennan sued Matson for unseaworthiness and negligence. He argued that by helping the intoxicated Weissbach back to the ship from the bar, he was engaged in work traditionally performed by the ship’s crew. He argued Matson owed him a duty of providing him with a seaworthy vessel as would be owed to crewmembers, that is, one with a net under the gangway. The court disagreed. It held as a non-crewmember Brennan was not owed a duty of seaworthiness.
Brennan also sued Matson for negligence. He alleged Matson owed him a duty of reasonable care because he was a “good Samaritan” helping a disabled, i.e. intoxicated, crewmember back to his vessel. Matson argued Brennan was a trespasser to whom no duty was owed.
The court held Matson’s negligence in the incident had been established in the Weissbach case. While it recognized Brennan was not specifically authorized to be on the vessel, it held Brennan was acting as an implied invitee and his boarding of the vessel was of benefit to the crewmember as well as to Matson. Under those circumstances, Matson was held to owe a duty of reasonable care to Brennan which was breached.
At the time of his injury, Brennan was in the Navy and did not suffer a wage loss or incur medical expenses. However, the court awarded him $10,000 for his pain and suffering resulting from the injury. The court then found Brennan to have been 25% at fault and reduced the award to $7,500. It reasoned the gangway was narrow, with a low loose chain railing and no safety net but Brennan should have recognized the danger it presented under the circumstances.
Watson v. Third Shipmore Associates, 182 F.3d 914 (5th Cir. 1999) involved an action brought by a ship repairman for injuries he suffered when he slipped and fell on the gangway of the MV Overseas New York. At the time of the injury, there was sleet and freezing rain. The gangway was properly lit and had non-skid treads although there was visible ice on it.
Before Watson boarded the gangway, he had five or more alcoholic beverages. He was so intoxicated that three hours after the incident he was still drowsy from the alcohol consumption. In addition to being drunk when stepping on the gangway, Watson wore leather soled cowboy boots instead of appropriate footwear, and failed to exercise any degree of caution for his own safety. He knew the gangway would be slippery and covered with ice when boarding. Nonetheless, his judgment was impaired and he proceeded up the gangway in cowboy boots.
Watson fell and he broke two bones in his leg. He sued the vessel owner for negligence under the Longshore and Harbor Worker’s Compensation Act. The court held the vessel owner was negligent in permitting ice to accumulate on the gangway and handrails, and that such negligence was a proximate cause of Watson’s injury. It awarded Watson damages in the amount of $175,000. It then found Watson to have been 90 percent at fault because he knew the gangway would be icy and slippery and proceeded to go on it wearing cowboy boots. It reduced the award to $17,500. Watson appealed. The Fifth Circuit agreed with the lower court’s assessment of 90 percent fault to Watson.
No Liability Found
A vessel owner is not always liable when an intoxicated crewmember is injured or dies presumably falling from a gangway. Alison v. United States, 150 F.Supp. 308 (S.DN.Y.1957) illustrates the point. Julian Alison was the first assistant engineer on the liberty ship S.S. John A. Quitman. The vessel docked at a pier in Hamburg, Germany. Because the vessel was loaded with cargo, it was low in the water. The gunwale was at the same level as the pier. A temporary gangway was set up with two boards 12 inches wide and 10 to 12 feet long. The boards were nailed together with 1 x 2 strips of wood. Three uprights were nailed on either side of the boards and a line ran from one end to the other. The gangway was secured to the bulwark but not to the pier so its angle changed with the tide. The gangway area was properly lit but there was snow and water on the gangway due to freezing weather conditions.
A tavern was located 100 hundred feet across the highway from the pier entrance. After the vessel docked, the tavern owner boarded the vessel and told the crew about it. Later that evening, Alison left the vessel and went to the tavern where he was seen by the tavern owner. He had consumed alcoholic beverages and was intoxicated.
Alison’s body was later found in the waters of the Harbor. He had drowned. His widow sued the United States for his death alleging the vessel was unseaworthy due to the temporary gangway. The court entered judgment for the United States. It held Alison’s widow did not establish by a preponderance of the evidence that Alison actually attempted to board the vessel after leaving the tavern or that he actually fell from temporary gangway.
As a general rule, a vessel owner owes a duty to provide a means of safe ingress and egress from the vessel. Under certain circumstances, a vessel owner can be held liable for an injury suffered by an intoxicated person using the means provided. However, the intoxicated injured party may be assessed a high percentage of comparative fault.