Kendall Dunson and Cole Portis, lawyers in our firm, settled a very important Maritime law case last month involving one death and one personal injury. The incident giving rise to the case filed in Mobile County, Ala., occurred in the Mobile Bay. On June 18, 2008, Edward Purdue and Carl Williams were line handlers employed with Mo-Bay. Line handlers operate small boats to assist large vessels with docking and tying their anchorage lines to bollards or dauphins.
When conducted properly, line handlers move their boat into position adjacent to the docking vessel and give hand signals to the docking vessel’s crew to slack the docking lines down. The docking line is then tied to the line handling boat and pulled to shore to be tied off. Before the line handling boat can move toward shore, the docking vessel’s crew has to introduce more slack using a winch and winch controls. The process continues until all docking lines are secured.
On the day of this incident, Mr. Purdue and Mr. Williams had successfully taken five lines to shore to be tied off and were on their last line of the day. After tying the last line to their boat, they called for slack, but instead of getting slack, the winch controls were operated in the wrong direction causing the winch on the docking vessel, the Glenross, to pull the line handling boat out of the water 20 to 30 feet up the side of the Glenross. Both Mr. Purdue and Mr. Williams realized what was occurring and began to yell and scream for slack. Both men held on to the console of their boat as they were being pulled out of the water by the subject winch. They then fell back into the water followed by their boat.
The evidence at trial revealed that the subject boat hit Mr. Purdue on his shoulder when the winch released the boat. Fortunately for him, while in the water he felt and grabbed the winch line as the winch continued to reverse. Mr. Purdue was pulled out of the water by the winch line to safety.
Mr. Williams was not as fortunate and was sucked down by the current created by the tug boats guiding the vessel into place to dock. He drowned and his body was not found until the Glenross was moved two days later. Five minutes after the Glenross completed offloading its cargo and was moved, the body floated to the surface.
Because of the incident, the U.S. Coast Guard was notified and boarded the Glenross hours after the incident to inspect the winch and the controls. The crew of the Glenross including its Captain, the Third Mate in control of the process, and others assisting, informed the Coast Guard investigators that the subject winch reversed without any person on the Glenross touching the controls. The Coast Guard inspector, along with two independent entities, tested the winch and the winch controls. It was determined that the subject winch and controls were in proper working condition and no one, including the Glenross’s own Chief Engineer, could duplicate the controls reversing or even operating without human intervention.
The independent inspections along with the opinions of all experts in the case, including the Defendants’ expert, concluded that the winch control must be activated before the winch can move in any direction. Furthermore, in order for the winch line to continue to heave in or pay out, the control must be held in that position. The control lever is spring-activated; thus, if the control lever is released, it will automatically revert to neutral, engaging a brake and stopping the winch.
With this evidence, we were able to prove and argue to the jury that the statements made by the crew of the Glenross were fabricated. Kendall and Cole contended that the Third Mate either:
• held the control in the heave in position while hearing Mr. Purdue and Mr. Williams screaming for slack, or
• he rigged the control and walked away to perform other tasks.
The evidence established that if someone had been monitoring the line handling boat and/or the winch, they would have easily heard the screams and could have stopped the winch before the line handling boat was pulled from the water.
The case was into the third week of trial when the parties agreed to a very good settlement for our clients. The case had been bifurcated. The first phase of the trial was to determine the status of Mr. Williams and Mr. Purdue as longshoremen or seaman. The jury ruled in the Plaintiffs’ favor, finding that the two men were longshoreman. This ruling affected the damages that were available to Mr. Purdue and to the three surviving children of Mr. Williams. The settlement for both Plaintiffs was reached a day before the jury was to deliberate liability and damages.
Kendall and Cole were assisted by David Bagwell, a talented lawyer, from Fairhope, Ala. David handled all Maritime law issues for us. His participation was instrumental in our firm being able to obtain the favorable settlement for our clients. The Defendants were represented by Tom Rue, Walton Jackson and Ben Segarra from Maynard, Cooper & Gale’s Mobile office. They put up a good fight, but had to know that the jury, after hearing the testimony, were going to return a very large verdict in the case.
This was a very good settlement for our clients and we were able to help them, which was our goal. This was a good result for them and there will be no appeal to be concerned with. Kendall and Cole did an outstanding job in the case.
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