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A stevedore falling through an open entrance cover of a poorly lit lashing bridge – who’s to blame?

LHWCA authorizes suits by longshoremen injured due to the negligence of a shipowner. Stevedores in US are known to not shy away from suing owners (and even time charterers). In The Vienna Express [2022], a stevedore was severely injured after falling through an open entrance cover of a lashing bridge that was three levels high. Can the owners be made responsible for this or did the primary responsibility for the safety of the longshoremen lie with the stevedore?

Stevedores were informed by the crew of issues with lashings on the top of the lashing bridge. This was just before midnight. They then climbed up the lashing bridge with a crew member. One of the stevedores closed the entrance cover once on top. The lashing bridge was very poorly lit. Once the lashing issue was fixed, the crew then climbed down but left the entrance cover open. Meanwhile the stevedores continued checking lashings. Soon thereafter one of the stevedores fell through the open grating cover. In his complaint, the stevedore said that owners were negligent because they failed to provide adequate lighting on the lashing bridge, failed to ensure that the manhole cover was closed, and failed to warn of the open manhole.

Court said that an owner owes three duties to longshoremen. It then analyzed each one of them separately.

(1) The turnover duty – When a vessel is turned over to stevedores, safe conditions must exist and they must be warned of certain hazards. Court’s view was that duty to provide adequate lighting is on the stevedore and this is also in line with local safety regulations for longshoremen. On the second aspect, the open cover was not a hazardous condition at the time of turnover (which had happened hours earlier).

(2) The active control duty – A vessel will be held liable if the crew were actively involved in the operations in which a stevedore got injured. The Court concluded that in this case the crew were not actively involved in lashing operations. Crew’s involvement was limited to indicating a problem with the lashings on some containers.

(3) The duty to intervene – A shipowner has a duty to intervene to protect the longshoremen. The Court said that the stevedore was aware that it was pitch black on the lashing bridge, did not complain to the crew and carried on working inspite of the risks being known. Crew can’t have had knowledge of the stevedore's exercise of improvident judgment in failing to remedy the lighting issue and therefore had no duty to intervene.

No negligence by the owners in this case.

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