Damages claim by pilot injured in fall while disembarking: a recent South Korean court ruling

Thursday 22 April 2021

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Hyun Kim
Sechang & Co, Seoul

A South Korean district court recently issued a ruling on a bodily injury accident where a marine pilot fell from a pilot ladder, shortly after completing his pilotage service aboard the ship. The accident rendered him unfit for pilot services for several months.

The pilot sued the ship owners, citing breach of safety measure requirements of the ship owners, the captain, and/or the crew. The claim sought amounted to approximately US$120,000 for his lost income and medical bills, and US$10,000 for emotional damages incurred by the accident.

The major points in the plaintiff’s claim were:

  • the ship’s speed was different from what he advised the captain prior to disembarkation;
  • insufficient ‘leeway’ provided where inadequate movement of the ship caused the accident; and
  • the clearance of the pilot ladder was inadequate and unsafe.

The court found that the pilot instructed the master to maintain a certain speed and course when he disembarked, so that he could disembark safely and that the ship maintained the said speed and course.

The pilot contended that as the weather was adverse, the ship should have slowed down to an extremely low speed. The court rejected this claim, stating that:

  • such a slow speed may put the ship (and perhaps the pilot himself) at greater risk;
  • the fact that tranquil waters were not formed does not mean that the ship is held liable (for providing insufficient leeway) as the tranquil waters was not formed due presumably to the bad weather, which was beyond the control of the ship;
  • the ship’s movements were limited by the surrounding harbour facilities.

The pilot further contended that the low end of the ladder should have a clearance of at least 2.5 metres above the sea level when he disembarked, but the end touched the sea, causing the ladder to become unstable.

The court also rejected this contention, stating that the clearance of the ladder was determined properly by the communication between the crew and the pilot, rather than unilaterally by the crew; and that the clearance was not an important factor in determining the ship’s liability as a lower-than 2.5-metre clearance was unlikely to be illegal, nor problematic, in the pilot’s safe disembarkation.

The court therefore rejected the entire claim, ordering the plaintiff to pay the ship owner’s legal bills.

Similar accident claims in South Korea have mostly been settled out of court. This claims case was the first published South Korean court ruling as to safety measures required on a marine pilot’s disembarkation, providing clear guidance for future litigation in Korea involving pilots disembarking from ships.

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