Talley's pays reparations to decapitated crewman's family after safety failure

Nelson fisherman Leighton Muir, 27 died in August 2014 in an accident aboard a Talley's seiner.

Nelson fisherman Leighton Muir, 27 died in August 2014 in an accident aboard a Talley's seiner.

Fishing company Talley's Group Ltd has been ordered to pay $21,000 to the family of a crewman decapitated aboard one of its ships but they say no amount will compensate what was taken from them.

Leighton Muir, 27, died aboard the M.J. Souza on August 24 2014 when a rope snapped back while hauling a net full of tuna in the Kiribati Exclusive Economic Zone in the Western Pacific Ocean.

Talley's pleaded guilty to a charge laid by Maritime New Zealand of failing to take all practicable steps to ensure the safety of its employees while at work after it failed to replace the rope which decapitated Muir.

Nelson District Court heard today that the 50mm rope used to haul tuna broke three weeks before the accident but was simply tied back together.

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When the knot slipped apart at about 2.30pm on August 24 the ship's captain yelled from the crow's nest for a crew member to secure it and continue winching in a net full of fish, placing undue weight on the broken safety line.

That line whipped back and decapitated Muir who was in the boat's high-risk "snapback" zone.

His head was lost overboard and the remaining crew stored Muir's body in a freezer as the boat departed for Samoa.

Muir's mother Glenys Muir said she had trouble sleeping since her son's death.

"I dread that part of him lost at sea will wash up on a beach one day and no one will know who he is.

"I'm mad that the skipper made the call to lift the gear, I'm mad that others did not have the guts to question him and I'm mad that a catch of fish was worth more than our son's life."

The fishing vessel Capt M J Souza at Talley's Wharf at Port Nelson.
Martin de Ruyter

The fishing vessel Capt M J Souza at Talley's Wharf at Port Nelson.

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Prosecutor Dale La Hood told the court the rope which ultimately killed Muir could have been replaced in under 30 minutes but when a crew member raised the possibility with the ship's bosun, he "reacted badly and scared the others off".

Interviews with the M.J Souza's crew showed the captain was known to yell at them, he said.

"There was a culture from the captain down that reflected badly on the company."

Talley's lawyer Jonathan Eaton said responsibility for the accident fell to the ship's captain and bosun who had since "absconded" from New Zealand and refused to cooperate with any investigation.

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The captain, a US national, resigned and returned home while the bosun had departed for American Samoa, the court heard.

"It's inevitable that if both the men had returned that they ought to have been prosecuted in some way or another.

"[They] completely inexplicably did not replace the line which failed with one that was only metres away. The captain must have been aware of the breakage but did not exercise the oversight to replace it.

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"They are acknowledging the absolute responsibility for what went wrong lies with them [by leaving]," Eaton said.

Rather than exposing failures on the behalf of Talley's management, the tragedy and subsequent court hearing illuminated the company's "extraordinary frustration that reliable employees for many years have disappeared and cannot be subject to an investigation".

"Talley's as a company want to take responsibility for what happened but you can't do that when you have no certainty what happened.

"There must be a line in the sand at some stage where you [a company] are legally not responsible because the act is so irresponsible and cavalier."

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However, La Hood said multiple failures to ensure safety aboard the ship "included a number that are systemic and not just failures of the bosun".

He said replacing the broken rope, immediately stopping the haul when it broke a second time, and having a functional peer review system in place aboard the ship would have increased the likelihood of avoiding Muir's death.

He dismissed claims by Eaton that Talley's were not liable because they could not have intervened in a situation occurring 4000 kilometres offshore.

"The actions of the company in this case are the actions of the captain. The defendant's submission … can give the court no comfort that the company is taking full responsibility for what's happened here.

"It does the company a disservice to suggest that total blame should be placed on the bosun and the captain and does nothing to demonstrate their remorse.

"This was a case where the practical steps were available and reasonably met and, given the seriousness of what occurred, this does fall in the high category [of culpability]," La Hood said, imploring judge Bill Hastings to order a $120,000 payment to Muir's family.

"There is a very young man whose life has been lost [along] with all the potential that goes with that."

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Talley's general manager Tony Hazlett said his thoughts were with Muir's family.

"The accidental death of a crew member is something no company wants to face and words cannot express the remorse I feel personally as a result."

While the rope broke at the knot made in it, Hazlett said testing confirmed the rope had a breaking point of 24 tonnes despite being marketed as having a 55-tonne limit.

"Despite the gear failure and the unknown [rope] defect the standard of conduct by two senior officers on board the MJ Souza that trip were below the standards required.

"The law holds a company liable for acts of crewman during the course of their work and our guilty plea recognised that."

Maritime New Zealand's general compliance manager Harry Hawthorn said the tragic case highlighted the dangers of deep-sea fishing, but also a great need to manage risks inherent in the industry.

"In this case the rope had already broken once but the reasons for that had not been considered. The rope had been repaired, not replaced, and it broke again. The dangers of the snapback zone had been identified but crew were still required to work in that area."

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This was Talley's fifth prosecution for failing to ensure the safety of its employees.

The court heard there was one case in 1994, three relating to the same incident in 2003 and a fourth case - a fatality - in 2012.

In 2015 Talley's was found guilty of the same charge after crewman Cain Adams died after falling nearly seven metres through an open hatch on the M.J Souza.

In that case Talley's was fined $48,000 and ordered to pay $35,000 in reparations.

Judge Hastings considered Talley's to be responsible in this instance, noting the fact that the bosun was challenged about the rope's safety "indicated something adverse about the culture of the ship".

"Although the skipper has a high degree of control over a boat at sea he remains the representative of a company.

"The correct course of action would have been for the captain to stop operations when the safety line came loose … and not continue even if this meant letting the net and the fish go."

He ordered Talley's to pay $73,520 in fines and $21,000 in reparations to the Muir family.

All parties present agreed no monetary value would truly reflect the loss of Leighton Muir's life.

His father Mark Muir said he had "lost all passion for his work" knowing that he could no longer pass on skills to his son.

Mother Glenys Muir was tearful throughout the sentencing.

"As a family we made the memories with him," she said.

"Now we only have the memories of him."



 - Stuff

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