Man Over Board: Was It Suicide?

What does an employer or insurer have to do, in cases of suspected suicide, to determine if death in service benefits are payable? Establishing the cause of death can give rise to complex issues such as those explored in a recent case involving a marine crew fatality. The matter of Braganza v BP Shipping Ltd (2015) revolved around the disappearance of Mr Braganza while working as chief engineer on an oil tanker managed by BP Shipping Ltd (BP).

This article first appeared in Clyde & Co Shipping Newsletter - July 2015.

BP's investigation

BP, the employer, was contractually liable to pay compensation for the death of its employees unless, in its opinion, the loss was by "wilful default" (i.e. suicide). BP concluded that the most likely explanation for the disappearance was that the deceased had committed suicide by throwing himself overboard. BP reached its conclusion after conducting a safety investigation into how its systems could be improved to prevent such a situation re-occurring. The resulting report, identifying six factors supportive of suicide, was sent to the General Manager responsible for employing individuals aboard the tanker who determined that no further enquiries were necessary, and that there had been a "wilful default" by Mr Braganza; therefore, no death in service benefits were payable to his widow.

Was BP's conclusion reasonable?

The deceased's widow challenged BP's findings. On the evidence, the High Court was unable to make a finding as to cause of death; however, the widow's claim for death in service benefits was upheld on the basis that BP's conclusion sustaining suicide was not reasonable. This decision was then overturned by the Court of Appeal which held BP's findings of suicide reasonable.

The importance of cogent evidence

An appeal to the Supreme Court followed, where it was held that the inherent improbability of suicide demanded that there be cogent evidence to support...

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