Captain’s Forgery After Sea Tragedy Ends in Payment

Captain’s Forgery After Sea Tragedy Ends in Payment

Captain’s Forgery After Sea Tragedy Ends In Payment
By Tim Sullivan
Gloucester Daily Times
November 29, 1977

A tiny, easily-overlooked alteration in a ship’s log has led to a court award of $2.75 million, the largest sum ever paid for injuries and damages in a marine law case.
The payment was made last week to the two survivors and estates of four men who died when the New Bedford dragger Eugene H. was cut in half by the Liberian freighter Grand Justice in 1975.

Sharing in the award is Timothy Gleason of Woodman Street. He was the son of Edward Gleason of Rockport, who was killed in the incident. “Without that alteration of the times – as small as it was – I’m not certain where we would have been,” attorney Michael Latti, of the Boston firm of Latti and Flannery, and following receipt of the $2.75 million check last week. “We went through hell to track everything down.”

The incident occurred on May 15, 1975, at 10:15 a.m. Gleason, skipper Lars Larsen of New Bedford and a crew of four New Bedford men were aboard the 72-foot dragger, fishing in heavy fog along the Great South Channel 65 miles southeast of Nantucket.

The 484-foot container-carrying Grand Justice, run by a Taiwanese crew under a Liberian flag, was steaming north toward Montreal at speed of approximately 12 knots. Visibility at the time was limited to about 150 yards, according to the ship’s log, and neither the freighter nor the fishing boat had time to avoid the collision. The fishing boat was cut nearly in half by the freighter’s bow. The six men were thrown into the water and the boat sank almost immediately. Testimony from the two survivors Francis Tripp and Bernard Mosher, indicated that the crewmen aboard the Grand Justice were clearly visible, looking down at them from the rail.

The men in the water screamed for help, but the ship steamed on. “The ship never slowed down, and that’s the key,” Latti said. “It’s a cardinal rule of the sea: You hit something and you stop the engines – immediately.” Following their rescue two hours later, the survivors said the ship continued on into the fog and disappeared.

The ship Grand Justice did finally return, and picked up the two men, Latti said, “But the other ones were gone by then. We had to prove that if they acted more quickly the outcome might have been different.” At first, it did not look like there could be any recourse at all, Latti said.Since the ship was of Liberian registry and its crew as foreign, there was doubt that Latti could get jurisdiction for the case in a U.S. court.

But as he traced the ownership of the vessel, it led him back to the Sea King Corp. in New York City. “Once we established jurisdiction we got the boat and skipper back here,” Latti said.

After instituting the suit in New York Federal District Court, Latti also gained access to the ship’s records and began pouring over them in hopes of finding discrepancies. The log and “bell book” of commands from the pilot house to the engine room both indicated that the ship had stopped its engines.

The log read: “1018 collision with fishing boat…1018 stop engine. 1019 vessel circle around for rescue.”  The bell book indicated that the engine had been stopped at 10:18 and the circling motion began at 10:19. Because of the ship’s size and weight, the stopping operation and return for rescue could take miles to accomplish.

“But it showed that they did stop the engine,” Latti said. Closer inspection, however, showed that perhaps the engines had not been stopped as quickly as it first appeared.

“The 10:18 indicated the collision looked suspect,” Latti said. A handwriting analyst confirmed the suspicions: The 10:18 was actually a redone 10:15. The 5 had been altered to look like an 8.

Captain Kuong Ching-ya confirmed the aleration – which is comparable to forgery on land – during his deposition before Latti in New York Federal District Court. Question: “I call your attention to the figure 1018, which you stated you have changed. Do you have any recollection of what the original figure was before you changed it, how did it read before you changed it?”

Answer: “1010-1015. Maybe the 5.”

Question: “Now, in other words, captain, you are telling us that you changed the 5 to an 8?”

Answer: “Yes.”

The testimony proved that three minutes passed between the time of the collision and the order to stop the engines. During that time, the ship moved more than a half a mile past the sinking vessel and its helpless crewmen. The position of the collision relayed to the Coast Guard was based on an inaccurate first reading of the navigational equipment.

That made it difficult for both the Coas Guard and the Skipper of the Grand Justice to find the men in the fog once a decision was made to attempt a rescue. “What it was that made the captain turn and come back I don’t know,” Latti said. “Maybe it was pangs of guilt … I don’t know.”

But by the time the ship did find its way back to the scene around noon, it was too late for all but two of the six men. “And when they came back – hard as it is to believe – they didn’t even put lifeboats overboard,” Latti said. “Instead, they stood on deck, on the deck of this 500-foot ship – and looked down to see if they could find anybody.”

Following the rescue and return of the survivors to New Bedford, the long battle to establish jurisdiction began. Following the establishment of the links to New York and institution of the suit, the Liberian shipping ministry held its own hearing in the case and ultimately suspended the skipper’s license.

Several months ago, Latti checked with the Liberian consulate and was told that the license has since been returned and, despite his actions, the captain was again in command of ships. “Through his actions, he is clearly responsible for the death of four men,” Latti said. “Had he acted responsibly and maneuvered properly he may have saved some lives … now he is back at sea … unbelievable.”

Recourse for the survivors and estates of the victims came through the court in New York, where the actual trial lasted for only a day and a half. “They decided to settle (out of court). The evidence I had was so damning that they had little choice,” Latti said. “It was clear we had willful, wreckless and wanton conduct.” Because of the U.S. ties, the plaintiffs received the large settlements. But Latti says the case only points out a continuing problem for which there can be no solution until it’s too late.

“We have unqualified people from foreign registry ships going up and down our coast all the time,” he said. “Our fishermen are out there all the time and have no protection,” he said. “We can sue after the tragedy, but that doesn’t solve the problem.” He sees the problem getting worse in the future unless something is done to bring foreign registry ships under flags of convenience under control.

“The incentives are all there to avoid U.S. registry,” he said. “Labor is cheaper, safety regulations are less strict is non-existent … and training is poor.” “Businesswise it might be justified,” he said. “To the fishermen it can be deadly.”