Braganza v BP Shipping Ltd

JurisdictionEngland & Wales
JudgeLord Hodge,Lady Hale,Lord Wilson,Lord Neuberger,Lord Kerr
Judgment Date18 March 2015
Neutral Citation[2015] UKSC 17
Date18 March 2015
CourtSupreme Court
Braganza
(Appellant)
and
BP Shipping Limited and another
(Respondents)

[2015] UKSC 17

before

Lord Neuberger, President

Lady Hale, Deputy President

Lord Kerr

Lord Wilson

Lord Hodge

THE SUPREME COURT

Hilary Term

On appeal from: [2013] EWCA Civ 230

Appellant

Belinda Bucknall QC

(Instructed by Duval Vassiliades)

Respondents

Grahame Aldous QC Christopher Wilson

(Instructed by Hill Dickinson LLP)

Heard on 10 November 2014

Lady Hale

(with whom Lord Kerr agrees)

1

Between 01.00 and 07.00 on 11 May 2009, Mr Renford Braganza, Chief Engineer on BP's oil tanker the British Unity, then in the mid-North Atlantic, disappeared. No-one knows for certain what happened to him. But his employers formed the opinion that the most likely explanation for his disappearance was that he had committed suicide by throwing himself overboard. This would mean that his widow was not entitled to the death benefits provided for in his contract of employment. Clause 7.6.3 of that contract provided relevantly as follows:

"For the avoidance of doubt compensation for death, accidental injury or illness shall not be payable if, in the opinion of the Company or its insurers, the death, accidental injury or illness resulted from amongst other things, the Officer's wilful act, default or misconduct whether at sea or ashore …." (emphasis supplied)

2

It is not the task of this or any other court determining a claim under such a contract to decide what actually happened to Mr Braganza. The task of the court is to decide whether his employer was entitled to form the opinion which it did. The issue of general principle in this appeal, therefore, is the test to be applied by the court in deciding that question.

The facts
3

Mr Braganza was an able and well qualified Chief Engineer. Like all the crew of the MV British Unity, he was an Indian national. He was a Roman Catholic and married with two children. In July 2008, the family had moved from India to Toronto in Canada and he had taken extended leave for this purpose. After returning to work with BP, he joined the British Unity in Gibraltar in February 2009. The vessel's main engine had broken down in August 2008 and been repaired but the damaged cylinder liners had not been replaced. This major work was done in April 2009 in Ferrol, Spain. Shortly after leaving Ferrol, the cooling water jacket of one of the cylinders began to leak. The vessel then proceeded via Falmouth to Brofjorden in Sweden, where a cargo of unleaded gasoline was loaded and also two spare cooling water jackets, which were stored in an alleyway on the main deck, close to a hatch providing access to the engine room below.

4

After sailing from Brofjorden, Mr Braganza received an email on 5 May 2009 from an engineering superintendent asking him to carry out a scavenge inspection/ring inspection of the engine in about six days' time and suggesting that it would be prudent to replace the cooling water jacket at the same time as the engine was stopped for that purpose. Mr Braganza replied that he would do the inspection in about six days' time and try to carry out the jacket replacement at the earliest opportunity. To do this, it would first be necessary to lower the cooling water jacket through the hatch into the engine room below. Ms Belinda Bucknall QC, for Mrs Braganza, stresses the "highly weather-sensitive nature" of the cooling water jacket exchange. (Indeed, Mr Williamson, the engineering superintendent who had supervised the major works in Ferrol had intended to telephone Mr Braganza on the morning of 11 May to suggest that he think about the operation "because obviously the lifting of a one and half tonne cylinder head in any sort of swell would be risky".) The main engine would have to be shut down for several hours, leaving the vessel at the mercy of wind and wave.

5

The vessel was originally bound for Jebel Ali in the United Arab Emirates, but on 7 May, while in the middle of the Bay of Biscay, it was ordered to proceed to New York instead. It therefore altered course and headed across the Atlantic. On 9 May, the weather worsened during the day and the log recorded at 20.00 a rough sea and high swell and shipping water on deck. On 10 May the weather began to improve. At 19.00, the Master, the Chief Officer, Mr Braganza and the second engineer met to discuss the plans for the next day. These included "lowering liner jacket to engine room from main deck" and "M/E scavenge inspection and liner jacket renewal". It was agreed that the Master and Chief Officer would check the weather in the morning.

6

At about 23.30 that same night, the Master and Mr Braganza met for about an hour. They discussed the weather conditions for the next day, with the assistance of a weather routing report which the Master had sent to Mr Braganza's computer. During the meeting, Mr Braganza emailed an engineering superintendent to report that he intended to stop the main engines the next day and do a scavenge inspection and that, weather permitting, he would like to change the liner jacket at the same time. He was advised to go ahead "if weather and schedule permits". The Master left Mr Braganza's cabin at about 00.30 on 11 May. That was the last anyone saw of the Chief Engineer. At 01.00 he sent a routine email to the second engineer. At 07.00 it was noticed that his cabin door was open, as it habitually was unless he was sleeping. His bed looked as if it had been slept in. He did not breakfast as usual in the officers' mess.

7

The Chief Officer carried out a risk assessment around 08.00 and the Master agreed that the job could be carried out. The Judge concluded that it was unlikely that there was no pitching or rolling but that it was not such as to make the planned operations unsafe. Lowering the cooling water jackets into the engine room began shortly after 08.00 and was safely completed by about 09.30. Mr Braganza was not there. Soon afterwards, the Master announced that he was missing. A search was made on board but he was not found. The vessel was turned around and a search and rescue operation conducted but he was not found. The cooling water jacket replacement was postponed until some days later.

8

On arrival in New York, an investigation was carried out on behalf of the Isle of Man where the British Unity was registered. The ship's crew were interviewed under caution. Its conclusion was that Mr Braganza was lost overboard, presumed drowned, but no finding was made as to the reason for this. BP then set up its own inquiry, in accordance with its own procedures, to "investigate the relevant circumstances leading up to the loss of Mr Braganza, identify if possible the root causes of the incident and identify any changes required to the BP Shipping Safety Management System". The five person team took about four months to make their extensive inquiries. Their eventual report was dated 17 September 2009. It considered five "possible scenarios". The team were able to discount three explanations – hiding or being hidden on board, collection by another vessel and fall from vessel due to horseplay, altercation or foul play. That left an accidental fall from the vessel, which could not be discounted, and suicide.

9

Under the heading "suicide", the team made six "bullet points" which led them to consider that suicide was a possibility. There was much criticism of each of these points in the courts below and the conclusions of each are briefly summarised below:

  • (1) Mr Braganza's "behaviour was reported to be notably different on this voyage than on previous voyages": (a) he was quiet and withdrawn, (b) there were no clean officer's uniforms in his cabin, and (c) his attention to detail in record keeping had slipped.

    The judge rejected (a) and (b) but found (c) justified. The Court of Appeal found all three justified.

  • (2) The shoes and sandals he usually wore on board were found in his cabin after his disappearance.

    The judge found it difficult to see how this could be probative of suicide as he could have worn his work boots. The Court of Appeal agreed with him but thought it unimportant.

  • (3) "Several e-mail messages received from his immediate family … suggest [he] had some family and/or financial difficulties that were causing him concern".

    The judge set out the emails from Mrs Braganza in some detail, including one on the 27 March, where she wrote "I really cannot figure out what has shaken you out so much that you seem to be so afraid of life" (see also paras 73 and 74 of Lord Neuberger's judgment). They certainly suggest that he was worried about something. The team did not interview Mrs Braganza about her communications with her husband during the voyage and what these might mean, but the judge concluded that this was not unfair, because she could have provided an explanation as soon as she got their report. The Court of Appeal considered that the team was "undoubtedly correct" on this point (para 30).

  • (4) He was not aware, before joining the ship, of its status and reputation and was reported to be unhappy about this.

    The judge accepted that this was correct.

  • (5) He considered himself eligible for the 2008 bonus which had been paid to him, but the employer had later advised him that it would be withdrawn.

    The judge thought that this could not be a cogent reason for inferring suicide. The Court of Appeal held (as we shall see) that this was not a necessary approach for the team to adopt.

  • (6) There were indications that the watertight door from the accommodation block that opens onto the upper deck on the starboard side may have been opened during the hours of darkness on the morning of 11 May. No member of the crew reported opening this door.

    The judge rejected this point, as there was no evidence that the door had been opened during the hours of darkness and the bosun could have left it secured on only one dog when he went on deck at the start...

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