New Judgment: BP Shipping Ltd & Anor v Braganza  UKSC 17
18 Wednesday Mar 2015
On appeal from:  EWCA Civ 230
The Supreme Court allowed an appeal by a majority of 3-2 involving the investigations carried out by the respondent upon the disappearance of one of its employees. The Court had to consider what evidence was needed for an employer to come to the conclusion that a missing employee has committed suicide and how they then must treat that finding in regards to contractual death benefits for the employee’s partner.
The Appellant’s husband disappeared between 1am and 7am on 11 May 2009 whilst working as the Chief Engineer on an oil tanker in the mid-North Atlantic managed by the respondents. The respondents formed the opinion that the most likely explanation for his disappearance was that he had committed suicide by throwing himself overboard and as a result the appellant was not entitled to the death benefits under her husband’s employment contract.
The High Court upheld the contractual claim for death benefits, finding that opinion formed by the respondent’s was not reasonable and they had failed to take into account the real possibility that Mr Braganza had suffered an accident. The Court of Appeal held that the approach taken by the respondent and its conclusions had been reasonable.
Lady Hale, giving the leading judgment, stated that the respondent’s general manager should not simply have accepted the view of the inquiry that suicide was the most likely explanation for Mr Braganza’s disappearance. She reasoned that in order to make a positive finding of suicide he had to direct himself that cogent evidence was required sufficient to overcome its inherent improbability. In this case there were no positive indications of suicide and the six factors relied on in the report were straws in the wind. The High Court judged had therefore been correct to find that the decision was unreasonable in the public law sense of having been formed without taking relevant matters into account.
Lord Neuberger, giving the dissenting judgment, stated that the Court’s approach when reviewing this decision should be similar to that of an appellate court reviewing a trial judge’s decision. He stated that he would have held that there was a combination of reasons which could fairly be said to be sufficiently cogent to justify the finding that Mr Braganza had committed suicide.