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JOHANNESEN v. UNITED STATES

January 9, 1956

Jacob JOHANNESEN, Libelant,
v.
The UNITED STATES of America, Respondent, and S. J. Farrington Iron Works, Inc., Respondent-Impleaded, and Marine Rigging Works, Inc., Second Respondent-Impleaded



The opinion of the court was delivered by: BYERS

The libelant was injured while working aboard the U.S.A. Transport George W. Goethals, on October 10, 1949 at about 4:30 P.M. He received statutory compensation through March 1950, and medical expenses. He then instituted this cause which is under the Public Vessels Act, 46 U.S.C.A. § 781 et seq.

He was struck by the reverse action of a handle which was being turned by two other men and himself, after its engagement with the shaft of a winch, in order to create slack in the falls thereof, namely, so that lifeboat No. 2 port side, which was waterborne alongside the ship, might be made fast to the falls, preparatory to being hoisted to the boat deck.

 The libelant's cause is not that the winch failed to function, but that it did. Thus there was no defect involved in the mechanism of the winch; it was structurally sound, but because it was capable of misuse by the man in control of its operation, the libelant urges that the ship was unseaworthy.

 Attention is thus at once directed to the winch as an element of the ship's construction. This calls for an analysis of the testimony as to the applicable standards at the date in question, with a view to ascertaining whether the respondent adhered to, or departed therefrom, to the detriment of libelant.

 The circumstances attending his injury are not in dispute, so that detailed findings in that respect are not required.

 The ship lay starboard side to pier 11, Staten Island, and underwent annual Coast Guard inspection between October 7 and October 17, 1949.

 Voyage repairs and general work were performed under contract with the S. J. Farrington Iron Works, which sublet the job of testing the life boats to Marine Rigging Works, Inc. The presence of these impleaded respondents is thus explained.

 Libelant Johannesen was in the employ of Marine, and had been assigned to work on the Goethals on the morning of October 10, and started his labors about 1:00 P.M. He was one of a gang of seven experienced ship riggers of which the foreman was Arne Abrahamsen, and at that hour the work of testing the life boats was started. There were five on each side of the ship and this cause does not involve those on the starboard side, as to which the tests were accomplished without incident.

 Concerning the port side life-boats, some details should be stated: the procedure as explained involved the lowering of each life-boat in turn. As it became waterborne it received a load of sand bags from a barge some 20 to 25 feet from the ship's side, to simulate occupancy to the extent of capacity; then it was hauled back to a position under the davits, the falls were affixed, and the boat was raised by operation of the winch at each station; then the boat was lowered, the bags were removed to the deck of the barge, and the life-boat was hauled back light, for final raising and nesting in its cradle on the boat deck.

 This procedure was departed from on the port side in that but one boat was actually loaded and raised by the davits to test the latter, i.e., their capacity to raise a loaded boat.

 The one employed was the Number 2; as to each of the others, 4, 6, 8 and 10, they were lowered and raised light, Number 2 alone being used as the laden unit, at stations 4, 6, 8 and 10. Thus the davits at each of these stations were tested with a loaded boat, in the same way as though the latter numbered boats had been successively loaded and raised. This departure from customary procedure was without effect so far as libelant was concerned, and is found to have played no part in his injury.

 It was the attempt to raise the Number 2 when light, at the completion of these tests, that gave rise to the libelant's cause. That boat was brought into position under the davit at the Number 2 station, but it became apparent that the falls were not long enough to enable the two men who were riding the boat to make the blocks fast in the fore and aft position; thus it became necessary to lengthen the falls, and it was at this juncture that the misadventure occurred, in the functioning of the winch.

 These life boats were of steel construction, and their lowering, after the davits had swung each one out from its cradle, was accomplished by gravity alone. It was hoisting the boats only which enlisted the power element in a given davit, namely electric current which activated a motor to turn the shaft by which the hoisting was accomplished.

 Current flowed in response to the control of a shut-off switch placed on the bulkhead adjacent to the davit. That switch was operated by a handle which plainly showed whether it was in the 'on' or 'off' position to indicate the presence or absence of current (supplied from the engineroom) to the motor of the winch. The current however could not be applied until a button switch near the port rail near the davit should be pressed.

 When that was done, the current caused the motor to turn the shaft to raise the falls.

 The button switch was pressed on this occasion by Abrahamsen, the foreman of the gang of which libelant was a member, thus activating the hoisting gear, at a time when the three men on deck were manually lowering the falls to pay them out, as has been stated. This caused the handle which they were rotating, to kick back, striking ...


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