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GORMAN v. PRUDENTIAL LINES

June 16, 1986

CHARLES G. GORMAN, Plaintiff, against PRUDENTIAL LINES, INC., Defendant


The opinion of the court was delivered by: CONNER

CONNER, D.J.

OPINION AND ORDER

 This case is a paradigm of the explosion of tort litigation that has caused a crisis in the liability insurance business -- a prototypical exemplar of the virtually universal effort to obtain compensation for every injury or loss regardless of actual fault.

 Plaintiff Charles G. Gorman ("Gorman"), a Chief Engineer on the tanker SAROULA owned by defendant Prudential Lines, Inc. ("Prudential"), has sued under the Jones Act, 46 U.S.C. § 688 et seq. and general maritime law, claiming that he suffered coronary artery disease as a consequence of Prudential's negligence in failing to provide him a safe place to work and the resulting unseaworthiness of the ship. Following a jury award in Gorman's favor, Prudential has moved for judgment in its favor notwithstanding the verdict. For the reasons stated below, the motion must be denied.

 Factual Background.

 Gorman, a 60-plus-year-old engineering officer, signed on the SAROULA as Acting Chief Engineer in August 1980, his first voyage at that rank. The SAROULA, built in 1958, was a deep draft vessel 670 feet in overall length with a 90-foot beam. It was under charter to deliver oil to various ports along the Gulf Coast and East Coast of the United States and throughout the Caribbean.

 Under the contract between Prudential and Gorman's union, Marine Engineers Benevolent Association, Gorman was entitled to one day of paid vacation for each day of work. Accordingly, after a first voyage of several months, he was ashore on leave for several months before signing on again, this time as Chief Engineer. Gorman repeated this cycle of work and leave for a total of four voyages on the SAROULA until February 1982 when he suffered an acute attack of angina pectoris.

 The condition of the machinery and equipment on the SAROULA clearly left much to be desired. There were frequent breakdowns and malfunctions of the engine room equipment which Gorman had the responsibility to keep in operating condition, and there were insufficient spare parts and materials on board to effect the necessary repairs. As a result, Gorman was required to work many hours of overtime, some days putting in a total of up to 18 hours. Pursuant to an unusual agreement with Prudential, Gorman was paid for all such overtime work and thus was able almost to double his base pay of $50,000 a year.

 Because he wanted this substantially increased income and liked the SAROULA's usual itinerary, with frequent calls at domestic ports, Gorman volunteered for repeat voyages on the vessel, knowing better than anyone the condition of her mechanical equipment. Gorman apparently did not suspect that he was suffering from coronary artery disease and had no symptoms thereof until a few days before the end of the fourth voyage, when he experienced upper abdominal pains. Believing that he was suffering only from indigestion, he took Digel. When the pain persisted, he reported to the Captain and was given paregoric. After a day or so of rest, his condition had improved to such extent that he volunteered to stand a wheel watch.

 Three days before the end of the voyage, he suffered more intense pains and, when the vessel docked at Baton Rouge, Louisiana, he was taken to Lady of the Lakes Medical Center. There an angiogram revealed that one of his three major coronary arteries was 99% blocked, another was 90% blocked, and the third was 60% blocked. A triple coronary bypass operation was performed to replace the blocked arterial segments. The operation was apparently a complete success. After a period of approximately 5 months of recuperation and rest, Gorman requested a qualifying physical examination in which he was found fit for duty. He returned to work as a First Assistant Engineer in December 1982.

 The Trial

 At the trial, in addition to adducing considerable evidence as to the mechanical difficulties which he confronted in attempting to keep the SAROULA in operation, Gorman called as an expert witness a specialist in internal medicine. The doctor testified that, although Gorman had a long-term buildup of fatty cholesterol deposits or plaque in his coronary arteries, the immediate producing cause of his acute attack of angina pectoris was a short-term accumulation of thrombi or platelets on top of the plaque, which resulted from the extreme stress to which Gorman was subjected by the deplorable condition of the engine room equipment and the long hours he was thereby required to work.

 Prudential, in addition to introducing evidence that the SAROULA had consistently passed inspections by the United States Coast Guard and the American Bureau of Shipping and was rated "in class," called as an expert witness a board-certified and experienced cardiologist. He flatly contradicted the opinion of Gorman's expert, testifying that coronary artery disease of the type and degree suffered by Gorman was the product of many years of gradual accumulation of plaque, a function of diet and heredity, and that working conditions, no matter how stressful, would not produce a significant rapid increase in the accumulation or trigger an acute angina attack.

 The jury resolved this conflict in favor of Gorman. In its verdict, returned in the form of answers to special interrogatories, it found that the SAROULA was not unseaworthy, but that Prudential had been negligent in failing to provide a safe workplace; that such negligence was a proximate cause of Gorman's injury; that Gorman had been damaged to the extent of $125,000; that Gorman himself had negligently contributed to his own injury; and that 75% of Gorman's injury was attributable to his own negligence. Thus, on ...


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