Electrocution Verdict

$2,500,000 – Electrocution, Stroke, Neurological and Cognitive Deficits

Amount : $2,500,000

Location: San Francisco, California

Type of action: Admiralty non-jury trial under Suits in Admiralty/Public Vessels Act

Injuries alleged: electrocution, stroke, oscillospia, deafness, tinnitus, left vestibular dysfunction, and mild to moderate cognitive deficits

Name of case: Plaintiff v. United States of America

Court/case #: 08-2598, United States District Court, Northern District of California

Tried before judge or jury (or mediation): Mediated

Settlement: $2,500,000.00

Date (of verdict or settlement): May 2012

The M/V CAPE HENRY is roll on/roll off vessel owned by the United States and at the time of the Plaintiff’s accident was operated by Pacific Gulf Lines. The vessel was activated in the end of April 2007 to deliver military supplies overseas.

The Plaintiff, 43 years old, was employed on the vessel as radio electronics officer. On June 2, 2007, while changing the burnt out range light bulb on the radar range mast, the Plaintiff felt an electrical shock in her left arm and felt the muscles in her left arm contract and wiggle.

The range light bulb was controlled by a toggle switch on the navigational panel in the wheelhouse. Prior to climbing the mast to change the range light, the Plaintiff saw the toggle switch for the range light in the off position. After being shocked and before doing any further work changing the light bulb, the Plaintiff yelled to the 2nd Mate to check if the power was off and the 2nd mate confirmed the toggle switch for the range light was in the off position. The Plaintiff then continued to work and proceeded to remove the burnt out light bulb without further incident of feeling any electricity. By the time the Plaintiff had climbed down from the mast, she had difficulty walking and was soon vomiting and slurring her speech. The Plaintiff could not walk, talk or even sit up within 10-15 minutes after the electrical shock. After some time, the Plaintiff was able to talk again. The Plaintiff exhibited bruises on the palm of her hand and right ankle swelling and bruising.

On June 8, 2007, the Plaintiff was taken off the vessel and brought to a medical facility where she was admitted and diagnosed with electrocution, multiple cerebral and cerebellar infraction and left atrial myxoma. Due to the electrical shock on June 2, 2007, the Plaintiff suffered a stroke, irreversible brain damage, deafness, tinnitus, scotoma, ataxia, vestibular ocular reflex, left vestibular dysfunction, ataxia, mild to moderate cognitive deficits and oscillospia. The Plaintiff has problems with vision in her left eye from seeing spots, blurriness, fuzziness, spots, flashes and floaters. Due to the oscillospia whenever she moves everything will move and shakes like in an earthquake and she is constantly nauseous.

After the accident, it was determined that even if you shut off the range light toggle switch to the off position, the light bulb would not shine which indicates there was no power but in fact, one of the two wires that connects on either side of the fixture would still be energized. It was determined that in order to shut off all sources of power to the range light, an additional switch on the on the navigational panel, the source toggle switch needs to be in the off position. Additionally, several days after the accident, it was determined there was a ground within the range light, its wiring and the electrical plug box at the range light.

Pursuant to the Public Vessels Act and the Suits in Admiralty Act, the Plaintiff brought claims under the Jones Act for negligence and general maritime law for unseaworthiness. Plaintiff claimed the Defendant was negligent in its failure to teach its new officers, crew through manuals, signage, placards regarding the safe operation of the vessel and its equipment. In this instance, Defendant failed to notify the crew that in order to shut off power to the range light or any navigational light, the source switch needed to be in the off position. Defendant failed to have proper signs/plague on the navigational panel that would have alerted the crew that multiple sources of power must be secured prior to working on the Navigational Lights and that the source switch on the navigational panel needs to be in the off position to secure the main and emergency power supplies to the Navigational lights. Additionally, that the Defendant failed to have a manual for the bridge that explained the equipment on the bridge, its location, operation and any pertinent, unique information/quirks regarding operation and use of the equipment. In this manual, it should have been explained that in order to shut off all power to the range lights, the source switch needed to be shut off. Additionally, Defendant should have instituted a policy, stated it in the manual and conveyed it to the crew that notification and/or permission from Chief Engineer, First Assistant Engineer and/or the Chief Electrician should be gotten prior to changing out any navigational bulbs. Further, that the Captain also has an affirmative duty to know what switches on navigational panel meant and if there is a switch on the navigation panel that you do not know what means than find out through the company and chief engineer. In this case, the captain had no idea what the source switch was but never took it upon himself to learn what a switch was on the navigational panel even though it is imperative to the safe navigation of the ship.

In this case, Plaintiff claims of unseaworthiness focused on the condition of the wires and cables leading to the range light that were deteriorated and exposed to the elements, lacked waterproofing and watertight material covering them, the cables/wires were corroded and had holes in them. The Defendant’s failure to inspect, maintain and repair the system in accordance with Coast Guard and company regulations resulted in a short up on the range light area, which was a cause of the Plaintiff being shocked.

Defendant claimed that Plaintiff was contributory negligent in that she was in charge of operation and that the Plaintiff should have known better and checked the wiring diagrams prior to changing the light bulb; that the primary duty barred recovery and that the Defendant’s actions were protected by discretionary function. Evidence was going to be presented that she was not in charge of the operation, the Captain who approved the operation and testified the Plaintiff did not do anything wrong and that the Plaintiff did not have experience or knowledge as radio electronics officer to understand the wiring diagrams or that the toggle switch did not shut the power off.

The greatest dispute in the case was medical causation. The Defendant claimed that if the Plaintiff was shocked it did not cause the severity of her injuries and the problems that she had presently. It was Defendant’s position that the cause of her stroke was that portions of her myxoma (non-cancerous tumor in her heart) caused her to stroke. That Plaintiff stroked because it was simply her time to stroke. Through treating physicians and experts from a biomechanical engineer specializing in the mechanical function and electrophysiology of the atrium and ventricles (cardio vascular biomechanics) to a doctor specializing in electrical injuries, evidence was going to be presented that the Plaintiff had a stroke because of the electrical shock, which basically caused pieces of the myxoma to break off causing the stroke. That without the electrical shock she would not have stroked.

Plaintiff was totally disabled and unable to return to any type of work. Defendant claimed Plaintiff could return back to sea, could work and disputed the severity of her injuries.