A widow whose sailor husband disappeared from the deck of a merchant ship in mid-Atlantic will not receive £150,000 in death benefits under his contract of employment after the Court of Appeal ruled that he probably took his own life. The deceased’s contract had stated that ‘no benefit shall be payable if an officer dies as a result of his own wilful act.’
The chief engineer’s disappearance in 2009 sparked a marathon court battle that racked up legal costs of over £3 million. His employers insisted that ‘the most likely scenario’ was that he had intentionally jumped overboard; however his widow refused to accept that.
Emphasising the crewman’s ‘apparent jollity and bravado’ at the time, his widow’s lawyers pointed out that a medical examination a few months before he went missing had found him both physically and psychologically fit. Married with two children, he came from a strong family and his Roman Catholic faith would have discouraged him from suicide.
However, his employers argued that he had financial worries, had been quiet and withdrawn during the voyage and had at times been seen ‘staring into space’ in the engine room. The shoes and sandals he usually wore on deck were found in his cabin after his disappearance and there was evidence that a watertight door opening onto the upper deck had been opened by someone that night.
Upholding BP’s appeal against a first instance ruling in the widow’s favour, the court noted that the employer’s investigators had carried out a ‘careful, detailed’ inquiry into the crewman’s disappearance before deciding that suicide was the most likely explanation. They had even considered, and discounted, the possibility that he may have hidden on board and later transferred to another vessel.