By NEIL HARTNELL
Tribune Business Editor
A majority Court of Appeal verdict, in overturning a “somewhat disconcerting and baffling” earlier ruling, found that The Mailboat Company breached its ‘duty of care’ for passenger safety on an April 2009 voyage.
The court, in a 2-1 verdict, found in favour of the appeal brought by passenger Beulah Rahming, who alleged that the transportation company’s negligence was responsible for her injuries suffered when disembarking its MV/Fiesta Mail vessel.
The Supreme Court ruled on January 31, 2014, that Mrs Rahming had “failed to prove, on a balance of probabilities”, that her fall on the MV/Fiesta Mail’s stairway was due to the company’s negligence.
However, Appeal Court president, Justice Anita Allen, and fellow justice, Abdulai Conteh, found “reluctantly” that this verdict should be overturned in Mrs Rahming’s favour because the Supreme Court had applied the wrong legal principles to what had occurred.
Justice Conteh, setting out the background to the dispute, said Mr and Mrs Rahming, and their granddaughter, were passengers on the MV/Fiesta Mail’s voyage from Nassau to Freeport on April 14, 2009.
“The vessel docked at about 2am in Freeport,” Justice Conteh wrote. “The crew of the vessel was hurrying passengers off the boat at that time, as they said the vessel had another journey to make that morning to the USA.
“While coming down the stairway to disembark from the vessel, the appellant [Mrs Rahming] fell and landed at the bottom of the stairs. As a result of that fall, she sustained injuries for which she needed medical care and attention.”
Mrs Rahming initiated legal action against The Mailboat Company in 2012, claiming damages on the grounds that her fall was caused by the company’s negligence.
She alleged that the stairway taking passengers from the MV/Fiesta Mail to the shore was poorly lit, with no hazard warning signs, and that a “wet or slippery substance” was present on it.
The Mailboat Company denied the claim, arguing that “at all material times it provided, promoted and maintained a safe and precautionary means of use of the stairway on its vessel”.
All dangers, it said, were guarded against, and it suggested Mrs Rahming’s fall was due to at least her partial negligence.
Mrs Rahming’s evidence was backed at the Supreme Court trial by a fellow passenger, Carmel Dean, who in her witness statement confirmed: “Before docking at the harbour in Freeport around 2am on April 14, 2009, several members of the mailboat’s staff came around and began rushing off.
“They told us that we needed to quickly leave the boat upon arrival in Freeport because they had to make a run to the United States the same morning. This announcement was made about three or four times’.”
Ms Dean agreed that the stairs on the MV/Fiesta Mail were “steep and narrow”, and that the area where Mrs Rahming fell was “dark and dimly lit”.
The Mailboat Company’s only witness before the Supreme Court was Murali Khodi, its technical advisor since 2002. However, the Court of Appeal noted that he admitted to not being on the April 2009 voyage when Mrs Rahming fell.
Nor did he know whether there were lighting and warning signs present, and he also admitted that he only learnt of Mrs Rahming’s injury a week before the trial. In short, the Court of Appeal suggested (without saying so) that the Supreme Court judgment implied his evidence was of little worth to the case.
Yet despite finding in favour of the factual evidence provided by Mrs Rahming and Ms Dean, the Supreme Court ultimately dismissed the former’s claim - leading to Justice Conteh branding this decision as “somewhat disconcerting and baffling”.
While appellate courts are always reluctant to interfere with ‘findings of fact’ by trial judges, Justice Conteh wrote that “there was a clear error of reasoning on the facts and on the applicable law” relating to Mrs Rahming’s actions.
The key, he added, was whether The Mailboat Company breached its ‘duty of care’ towards Mrs Rahming’s safety via negligence, leading to the injuries she suffered.
Justice Conteh said the ‘duty of care’ obliged The Mailboat Company “to ensure that there was proper lighting in and around the staircase, and there be warning signage of its condition”.
Employees, he added, should not be rushing passengers off, given how narrow and steep the stairs were.
The Mailboat Company, Justice Conteh found, was a carrier of fare-paying passengers such as Mrs Rahming, to whom it owed a ‘duty of care’.
“We are convinced and satisfied that the respondent [The Mailboat Company], in the capacity of a carrier, owed its passengers, including the appellant, a duty of care to ensure that persons in her position using the vessel come to no harm while onboard and in the process of disembarking the vessel,” Justice Conteh found.
He added that there was “only one irresistible conclusion”, which was that The Mailboat Company “failed to use all due, proper and reasonable care to ensure that the appellant was safe in alighting from the vessel at that time of the morning”.
However, Justice Neville Adderley dissented from his colleagues, finding that the Supreme Court’s conclusions were reasonable based on the evidence, and that it “correctly applied the law.... after a rather thorough analysis”.
He added that the Court of Appeal should not interfere with the lower court’s verdict.