OOCL found guilty in accidental death of employee

Company won't rule out appeal against involuntary manslaughter verdict over fatal lift accident 11 years ago that claimed life of long-time employee

PUBLISHED : Friday, 04 July, 2014, 1:41am
UPDATED : Friday, 04 July, 2014, 7:44pm

Orient Overseas Container Line has been found guilty in a French court of involuntary manslaughter over the death 11 years ago of Courtenay Allan, one of its senior executives, and was fined €50,000 (HK$529,000).

The verdict by the Tribunal de Grande Instance in Le Havre came out on Wednesday, following a long campaign by Allan's three sons against OOCL.

According to Allan's youngest son, Hayden, who learned of the verdict from the lawyer representing the family, there is a period of 10 days in which an appeal can be lodged.

"While OOCL believes that closure of this long-running matter would be in the best interest of all concerned, as the reason for the judgment is not out yet, the company's lawyers are unable to advise the company if an appeal against the judgment should be considered," said Stephen Ng, a spokesman for the Hong Kong shipping line.

Allan, a British national, was OOCL's London-based transatlantic trades director at the time of his death. He fell down a lift shaft on the container ship OOCL Montreal during a customer cocktail reception aboard the vessel during its maiden voyage in the French port city of Le Havre.

The court heard earlier that the lift had malfunctioned before Allan's fatal accident.

The ship was delivered in May 2003, about two months before the accident.

OOCL was charged by the French authorities in November 2012 with involuntary manslaughter "by negligence, carelessness, inattention or breach of duty or safety causing the unintentional death" of Allan. The case went to trial in May this year.

"After 11 years of campaigning for justice, we are pleased that OOCL has finally been held responsible for our father's premature death. Having worked for the company for over 37 years, we didn't expect OOCL to go to the lengths they did to cover up the facts and drag out the painful process," Ben, Tristan and Hayden, the three sons of Allan, said in a statement. They hope the company will accept the court's decision.

The three brothers even travelled to Hong Kong to ask OOCL chairman Tung Chee-chen for answers and met with the Hong Kong Marine Department. The family claimed that many facts related to the accident were not revealed.

While the lift malfunction has not been properly explained, a British coroner did not rule out human involvement in a judgment on Allan's death. In a verdict on September 20, 2011, coroner Caroline Beasley-Murray said experts who inspected the vessel had concluded that the lift car was not there when called.

"There should have been a mechanism in place to ensure that the lift door could not be opened when the lift car was on a different level," the report said. "It is possible that direct human intervention by way of modifications to the lift system led to this malfunctioning."

The family of Tung Chee-hwa, Hong Kong's first chief executive after China resumed control of the former British colony in 1997, owns about 69 per cent of OOIL, which is the parent firm of OOCL.

With additional reporting from Reuters