The opinion of the court was delivered by: BYERS
The libellant was injured on January 3, 1949 while working as a stevedore's employee on the U.S.A.T. Private John F. Thorson, then docked at Staten Island Pier 13. The cause was brought against the United States as owner of the ship, and the stevedore to be called Pittston, was impleaded in order to invoke possible liability upon its part on the theory of indemnity.
The question for decision is a narrow purely factual one, as to whether the force which set in motion the chain of events involved, can be traced to inattention on the part of the libellant's fellow workmen, or to a defect in the ship's equipment, namely a certain pin which will be described, the office of which was to latch into vertical position a pontoon or section of the hatch covering of number 3 hatch.
The pontoon had been raised by means of a steel cable or fall, and by reason of its not having been made secure, it fell, striking the cable gear whereby part of the latter lashed or snapped in a fore and aft motion, striking the libellant on his face and about his head causing the injuries for which he seeks to recover damages.
It is necessary to discover from the evidence, if that be possible, the true origin of the misadventure.
The libellant was acting as a winchman operating one of the two forward winches at this hatch on the main deck. The accident occurred at about 1:03 p.m. on a clear day.
No fault of the winch is involved.
The steel hatch covering consisted of two sections or pontoons, and it was the forward one weighing about two tons, with which we are concerned. It measured 7 1/2 feet fore and aft, and 20 feet athwartships. At its forward edge it was hinged to the 'tween deck and could thus swing into vertical position, if the aft end was raised.
There was a shackle at the aft end of the pontoon, to which a wire pendant 5/8' in diameter was attached. This pendant led forward to a block at the top of a stanchion; thence aft through another block welded to the underneath side of the coaming at the main deck level.
On the aft end of the pontoon there was an eye splice in the pendant to which a shackle was attached.
In vertical position, the pontoon at the then top, rested against a stanchion attached to which was the latching device intended to maintain the pontoon firmly in place, namely:
(a) A horizontal steel dog 13'-14' long, 1' thick weighing about 13 pounds. This pivoted on the bolt that held it to the stanchion, at a height of some 5-5 1/2 feet above the level of the 'tween deck.
This dog was nose shaped, and fitted into an aperture in a slot cut into the then upper surface of the pontoon, and thus engaged the pontoon, i.e., about 2 inches of the dog supported the under side of the said upper and slotted plate of the pontoon.
In this position the dog was vertical.
(b) A metal bracket of 1/2' steel alongside the dog was welded into the stanchion. There was a space between the dog and the bracket.
There were means to hold in engagement the dog (in vertical position) with the bracket, namely, holes which were in register in the dog and the bracket, into which a steel toggle pin, 8' long and 5/8' to 3/4' in diameter was inserted. Those holes were 13/16' in diameter.
The thrust of the pin was horizontal, so that when it was properly inserted in these holes, the toggle end of the pin, of from 1' to 1 1/2' in length, fell into a right angle relation to the rest of the pin; thus these two related parts of the pin were now in the shape of an 'L', the longer dimension being horizontal.
The toggle end was itself controlled by a pin which admitted the dropping of the short end in only the down direction, to form the 'L'.
The toggle pin was attached by a substantial chain to the dog, which in turn was welded to the stanchion; thus it was in the nature of a fixed element of the latching device, as were the dog and the bracket.
When the pontoon was in the vertical position, those working on the main deck forward of the hatch could not see the latching mechanism which was below and aft, as they looked toward the stern of the ship, or into the hold of hatch No. 3.
Since the pontoon had just been raised at the time involved, it will be realized that cargo had not yet begun to move into the forward end of this hatch. The ship was down by the stern by nearly 11 feet, which means that the inclination aft of the top of the pontoon would exert a pressure against the dog which would not be present if the ship were more nearly on an even keel; that would tend to hold the pontoon in its vertical position, thus lending additional capacity to the latching function of the dog, even if the pin were not in place.
The raising of the pontoon was accomplished in this wise: The shackle at the aft end of the pontoon was attached to the said cable or pendant, which received the hook made fast to it; the winch then raised the cable, which brought the pontoon into vertical position in arcuate motion, until it rested against the stanchion.
So much is not in dispute, nor that the pontoon being upright, fell aft in about 40 to 60 seconds and down; this caused the cable or pendant (about 15 feet long) so to swing or lash as to result in the injury to libellant which has been described.
The reason why the pontoon fell is the matter in controversy.
Libellant was operating his winch on the main deck, one deck above the 'tween from which the pontoon had been raised. In that position the then top of the pontoon was two or three feet below the level of the main deck.
Ventrone's story is (having raised the pontoon to the vertical position by operating his winch):
'Then, the first thing you know, somebody told me to come back. (Release the cable.) They had the dog in, you know, tight and everything. I come down and took off the hook (released the cable). I raised the hook up (the engaging hook to cable). In about 30 seconds, the pontoon come down and the pendant hit me right on the side of the face.'
Thus he did not attempt to testify concerning the cause of the fall of the pontoon, for the reason that he did not see, and probably could not, just what took place when the latching mechanism was supposed to be set. That was done from the 'tween deck.
As to that, we turn to the testimony of Slimas who said that he was the longshoreman who handled the ...