MARITIME LAW | Harbour pilot cleared of putting man’s life at risk in landmark judgement

A harbour pilot who had been accused of putting a man’s life at risk and seriously injuring him through negligence was acquitted this week, after a court ruled that it is the ship’s captain who is responsible for every decision taken on a ship.

It is being considered as a landmark case that distinguishes between the responsibilities of the captain of a ship and those of the pilot.

The case goes back to 3 March 2003, when the ship MT Allegro, steered by harbour pilot John Pace Bardon, was about to leave Delimara, Marsaxlokk. One of the mooring ropes had snapped, hitting mooring-man Alfred Bone on the head and causing him a blunt head trauma.

Four doctors who testified in the proceedings said that as a result of the incident, Mr Bone’s hearing had deteriorated and he is still suffering serious consequences to this day.

In his testimony, Mr Bone explained that as MT Allegro was about to leave Delimara, he and another mooring-man, Carmel Dimitri, were letting go of the mooring ropes on the quay.

They had let go of the ropes to the stern and the bow of the ship, and he was trying to let go of the spring line, which was taut and ended up snapping, said Mr Bone.

Mr Dimitri said he remembers hearing the sound of a loud shot when Mr Bone was hit by the rope.

The court heard the testimony of Joe Micallef Stafrace, who had been appointed as a legal expert on the case.

Mr Micallef Stafrace said: “There appears to have been some haste in the sequence of events and orders given to let go remaining mooring ropes… had the order been given to the tugs [to take up the weight] a few moments later, this accident could well have been avoided.

“Both the tugs and the pilots are servants of the master/ship’s owner and therefore the latter bears responsibility for their actions and ultimately for the accident.”

Other experts and captains who testified all confirmed that the ship’s captain is ultimately responsible for the ship and the way it operates; the pilot is simply an advisor and the captain can choose whether or not to follow his/her advice.

The court examined what Captain Arlotta, the ship’s captain, had said under oath during the verbal process of the case (he has not been traced since).

“The pilot was on the starboard wing looking towards the jetty… I realised that the stern spring was becoming tight and asked the second mate aft to slack[en] the stern spring at the same time requested the pilot to stop pulling the stern.

“At this time the engine of my vessel was not running but it was stopped and the second mate told me that the rope was very tight and could not be slackened. In no time I noticed that the spring parted and saw the broken rope hitting the mooring man.”

The court noted that this statement clearly shows that the captain knew what was going on and what the problem was with the mooring rope; in fact, it was the captain who requested the pilot to “stop pulling the stern”, and this shows that he was well aware of the situation – probably even more so than the pilot.

The court took into consideration a number of points from the law that the defence had brought up.

Regulation 96 of 2003 of the Organisation of Pilotage states: “The function of a pilot on board a ship is to provide information and advice to the master of the ship… Despite the presence of a pilot on a ship, the master of the ship continues to be responsible for the conduct and navigation of the ship in all respects”.

Another section of the regulation states: “Notwithstanding anything contained in any law, the owner or master of a ship navigating under circumstances in which pilotage is compulsory, shall be answerable for any loss or damage caused by the ship or by any fault of the navigation of the ship in the same manner as he would if pilotage were not compulsory”.

The court concluded that the ship’s captain is criminally responsible, even if he is given wrong advice by the pilot. The pilot was therefore acquitted of all the charges brought against him.



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