Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Payment in nature

On the 18th of February 1974, in an interview with ITN News, David Shenton, the National Fisheries Officer for the Transport and General Workers Union, said that lack of evidence [1] about what had happened to the Hull trawler Gaul on the day it disappeared could cost the families of her 36 crewmen as much as £312,000 each [2] .
His statement [3], made just 10 days after the loss of the vessel, managed to crystallise, in a few words, the crux of the matter, which, for the next 35 years, would deny the general public the facts behind the vessel’s loss, and the families of the crew the right to know what happened to their loved ones.

It is now evident that it was not a submarine, a cold war spy-ship encounter, official secrets or hijack and capture by the Russians that had prevented the truth about this tragedy from emerging (these were just convenient ‘red herrings’ made up for the excitement of the public); it was money - purely and simply - and the British Establishment’s unwillingness to pay what amounted to a considerable sum, even though this was proper, fair and legally due to the victims’ families.

The reluctance of both governments and private companies to pay legal damages to injured parties is well-known, and has a long and colourful history in the maritime business world; what is particularly sickening, however, in the Gaul and other recent cases is the shoddiness of the tactics employed to circumvent the law: the cynical setbacks, the unnecessary delays, the long and costly legal battles, the blatant lies and, despite the recent disclosures, the persistent suppression of the truth, all of which go far beyond reasonable prudence and concern for the interests of shareholders and taxpayers.

But what is, perhaps, even more disturbing is the ease, the audacity and the extent to which the ‘cartel’ of politicians, businesses, insurers, civil servants, law firms and the judiciary are nowadays prepared to collude in order to prevent the payment of lawful compensation to those who have suffered such terrible losses.
In the Gaul case, this collusion led to a dubious but costly public inquiry, which, contrary to the available evidence, laid the blame for the tragedy with the crew.

A decade ago, in the debate about the limitation of liability for the maritime industry, justice David Steel placed himself firmly on the side of the shipping and insurance industries, whose financial interests he considered more important than fair compensation to claimants for damages caused by shipping mishaps.
The same justice Steel was then appointed to chair the 2004 Re-opened Formal Investigation into the sinking of the Gaul, which, surprisingly, found no fault with the vessel and, therefore, no grounds for subsequent compensation claims by the victims’ families.

Of course, a fine balance between safety and profitability has to be struck, no one wants the shipping or the insurance industries to go bust, but “at no time should any innocent party be expected to subsidize any business by their personal loss”, [4] nor should a formal legal process to be turned into a farce.

[1] Simply put, as long as there was no firm evidence concerning the loss of the Gaul, liability could not be established and there could be no compensation for the dependents.

[2] About £3.5million in present day worth

[3] Unfortunately the families were soon to lose their champion as Mr Shenton passed away shortly thereafter. Mr James Johnson paid the following tribute to Mr Shenton in the House of Commons on 5 April 1976: “The late David Shenton, National Fisheries Officer for the Transport and General Workers' Union—whose untimely death is a great loss to the industry—did a great deal for the fishermen in Hull.”

[4] Serge Killingbeck, SCU Law Review Volume 3 November 1999

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