Failure to navigate alternate route around obstructed stairs leads to significant damages award

27 November 2020

This article explores the law in relation to issues of negligence and quantification of damages for a seaman who tripped over hoses on a midship stairway.

In issue

  • Whether the risk of a crew member tripping over hoses obstructing a midship stairway was foreseeable
  • Whether a reasonable person would have barricaded the obstruction and directed the crew to use an alternative access route
  • Whether any damages awarded to the plaintiff ought to be reduced for contributory negligence.

The background

The plaintiff was employed by the defendant as a second engineer on board the ship named the “Whitnavigator” which carried fuel from the Shell Terminal at Gore Cove to larger ships, principally cruise liners. On 18 September 2013 at about 7:00am as the plaintiff was entering the midship stairway, he tripped over hoses on the staircase and fell, sustaining serious injuries.

The decision at trial

The trial judge found that that the plaintiff slipped or fell all the way down the stairway onto the main deck, sustaining a loss of consciousness and significant physical injuries. The most probable cause of his fall was that he tripped or, slipped or caught his feet on the hoses as he stepped down onto the port midship stairway. The court dismissed the plaintiff’s recollection of events as being unreliable because the concussion injury sustained meant that the plaintiff could not have had any memory of the incident itself and he was reconstructing events based upon documents and other evidence.

His Honour was not satisfied that there was some other place in which the hoses could have been stored more safely. His Honour further held that there were alternative means of getting from the control room down to the bunker station. The presence of the hoses partially blocking the entrance to the port midship stairway was obvious and was perceived by the plaintiff and another shipmate as a hazard.

The risk of a crew member tripping on the hoses which blocked the port midship stairway was foreseeable and the magnitude of the risk created was high. However, the degree of probability of its occurrence was low. It was noted that the steps taken to eliminate the hazard, namely barricading the midship stairways and directing the crew not to use that particular stairway, came at no significant expense, difficulty or inconvenience.

In those circumstances, a reasonable person placed in the defendant’s position would have barricaded the port midship stairway whenever the hoses were blocking that stairway and directed the crew not to use that means of access to other parts of the ship

In relation to quantum, the issues between the parties were largely agreed but for the head of damage of future economic loss. The defendant did not tender any medical evidence at trial and therefore the evidence of the plaintiff, namely that he remains medically unfit for work, has chronic major depressive disorder and PTSD which impairs his cognitive functioning and will not be able to return to his previous work or retrain for other employment was accepted. A 15% deduction for vicissitudes was accepted as appropriate.

Judgment was entered for the plaintiff in the amount of $2,152,091.

Implications for you

This case demonstrates the importance of ensuring that simple, inexpensive safety precautions (which will reduce obvious risks such as tripping on stairs) are taken. The failure to do so in this case resulted in a very significant damages award with only a small reduction for contributory negligence.

Heesom v ASP Ship Management Pty Ltd [2020] NSWDC 653

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