Monday, 16 July 2012

Chief Officer awarded $ 590,000 by Miami court

..Claimed overwork led to heart condition

A court in Miami has ruled against Maersk, awarding a former employee seaman almost six hundred thousand dollars after he took the company to court claiming that he had suffered heart damage after working sixteen hours a day as Chief Officer on one of their vessels. The seaman, William Skye, claimed that this condition forced him to retire early at the age of 54 on medical grounds. The ruling has sent a mini shockwave across Western shipping circles, who fear that similar legal action could be pursued in their countries by seamen who are invariably overworked in defiance of the STCW convention- something that is an open secret in the industry.

Referring to British law, Liz Buchan from Watson Farley & Williams told Lloyd’s List, “An employer has an obligation to provide a safe system of work and there may also be breaches of the working-time regulations. However, it’s unlikely that the damages award would be so high (in the UK), as US judgements often involve an element of punitive damages, which are rare here.”

In the Miami case, 57-year-old William Skye alleged negligence under the US Jones Act, saying that he typically slept less than six sleep a day because of two four-hour watches, in addition to 28 additional duties associated with his role on board the 'Sealand Pride'. Skye claimed, further, that he was "required" to violate the work/rest hour STCW regulations. 

The result of his 16 hour workdays aboard the 'Sealand Pride', Skye said, was Left Ventricular Hypertrophy, a cardiac disease the significantly increases chances of a heart attack; a psychiatrist also diagnosed 'adjustment disorder'. Both the cardiologist and the psychiatrist connected his condition to working conditions aboard the Sealand Pride and recommended that he retire early.

During trial, Skye's legal team put forward testimony from two former Maersk employees, a Chief Officer and a fleet manager. The Chief Officer said that it was impossible to do his job without a significant amount of exhausting overtime. The Fleet manager testified that Maersk did not "affirmatively do anything" to check that its crewmembers were able to complete their job duties and comply with the STCW laws. Another Captain who had sailed with Skye said that he was a competent officer who had complained to him that STCW compliance was difficult. Other evidence showed that Maersk budgeted 185% of the Chief Mate's base salary as overtime- the highest for any officer on board. 

At the end of the trial, the Florida jury found that Maersk did not violate any STCW laws, but was negligent, and this negligence was the legal cause of Skye's medical condition. After two days of deliberation, it awarded Skye $2.36 million dollars, reducing the amount to $590,000 because of comparative negligence- the jury found Maersk 25% negligent and William Skye 75% comparatively negligent.

Maersk's lawyers had argued that Skye had "discretion over his working hours" and a former Captain testified that Skye "had failed to delegate duties properly." They also said that Skye's health did not prevent him from working as a Chief Officer, that the condition was old and that he had planned to retire in 2008 anyway, before finding out about his heart condition. 

Tellingly, Skye was a licensed attorney who went to law school in the 1980's and even practiced law briefly before returning to sailing.

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