The Weekly Reflektion 22/2023

The legal system throws up some interesting examples of assigning blame and finding people negligent. Sometimes the concept of ‘beyond reasonable doubt’ doesn’t seem to be as important as finding a person(s) and administering justice.

What is the legal system trying to achieve in its pursuit of determining negligence?

In last week reflektion (week 21/2023) we asked the question ‘Is the Law an Ass?’ and we talked about the conviction of the officer of the watch on the frigate Helge Ingstad. He was prosecuted for negligence and found guilty in a judgement that we strongly disagree with.

Another case that suggests the law may be an ass is a court case related to Piper Alpha. 

The Piper Alpha disaster occurred on 6th July 1988 and 165 of the people onboard and 2 persons involved in the rescue were killed. The investigation of the disaster was chaired by the Scottish judge William Douglas (Lord) Cullen. The report from the Cullen Inquiry was released in November 1990. The Cullen Inquiry was critical to Occidental, the operator of Piper Alpha and identified poor design, inadequate maintenance,and insufficient safety procedures. No criminal charges were brought against Occidental, or any other company or individual involved in the incident. The uncertainties around what happened, and the systemic technical and organisational failures associated with the design and operation of Piper Alpha perhaps made it difficult to assign blame and hence press criminal charges for negligence. Note that Cullen did not have a mandate to investigate criminal responsibility. This isfor the police and public prosecutor to determine.

In 1997 there was a court case related to an insurance dispute between Occidental and some of the contracting companies that employed some of the personnel on Piper Alpha at the time of the disaster. The judge in this case found that two people that died in the disaster were grossly negligent. One of these was the lead operator that oversaw the operation and that was responsible for the permits for work carried out on the process facilities. The other was a mechanical technician for failing to correctly fit a blind flange that was identified as the most likely source of the hydrocarbon leak that resulted in the initial explosion and fire. The lead operator was posthumously awarded the Queen’s Commendation for Brave Conduct while on the burning platform for his efforts to start the fire pump on the burning platform after the initial explosion.

The judge in the case was asked afterwards whether he had considered the findings from the Cullen Inquiry before he made his judgement. He replied that he had not, and that hecould only make his judgement based on the information presented in his court for this particular case. He emphasized that he was not aware of the details in the report from Lord Cullen and neither did he see these as relevant. This seems a most outrageous statement bearing in mind that the judge effectively blamed two people for the Piper Alpha disaster. As can be imagined the family and friends of the two people were shocked by the judgement and especially in the light that no one at Occidental had been found guilty of negligence for the management failures.

The law can be an ass and as this case shows, people administering the law can be pretty stupid too.

Reflekt AS