Lithuania: Court makes €12,000 award to widow after husband’s death at sea

Human rights judges have given their support to a widow, who brought a complaint against Lithuania, following the death at sea of her husband.

In its 31 May judgement in the case Bakanova v. Lithuania (no. 11167/12), the European Court of Human Rights decided that national authorities had violated the European convention. Under Article 41 (Just satisfaction), the Strasbourg court awarded 10,000 euros (EUR) as non-pecuniary damage and EUR 2,420 in costs and expenses.

The applicant, Liudmila Bakanova, is a Lithuanian national who was born in 1951 and lives in Klaipėda (Lithuania).

On the morning of 24 October 2007, Bakanova’s husband, on a work voyage to Brazil on the private ship Vega, was found dead in his cabin. The ship’s captain assembled a commission to investigate the death and, having inspected the cabin and taken photographs, sent a report to his superiors at the Limarko shipping company based in Klaipėda, Lithuania.

The following day the Brazilian police took statements from the captain and chief engineer and a Brazilian doctor gave acute heart attack as the cause of death.

The body, embalmed in chemicals and put in a zinc coffin, was then shipped to Lithuania, which it reached on 1 December 2007.

The possible causes of death were subsequently examined in two separate sets of proceedings – criminal and administrative. In the administrative proceedings, the Supreme Administrative Court ultimately dismissed in February 2009 Ms Bakanova’s claim that her husband’s death be considered as a work accident.

It notably found that, even though poor working conditions on the ship had been confirmed, the main engine often breaking down and causing leaks of dangerous gases, this could not have caused her husband’s heart attack.

The Lithuanian prosecuting authorities, which opened a criminal investigation in October 2007, came to a similar conclusion and discontinued the investigation in December 2010.

Bakanova appealed against the decision to discontinue the criminal investigation, arguing that experts had not been able to definitely confirm that her husband had died of a heart attack, given that her husband’s body had been quickly embalmed without an autopsy being carried out.

She also pointed to shortcomings in the investigation, such as the absence of blood test results and toxicology tests, the lack of documents concerning safety at work on the ship, the fact that the ship’s logbooks had not been obtained and that the ship had not been inspected after her husband’s death.

By a final ruling, however, in September 2011 the Klaipėda Regional Court dismissed her appeal, noting that the cause of death had already been established in a final and binding decision in administrative proceedings in February 2009.

Bakanova’s argument that additional evidence should have been collected was considered as serving no purpose, given the amount of time which had already elapsed.

Relying in particular on Article 2 (right to life), Bakanova alleged that the investigation into her husband’s death had been ineffective. She notably considered that had there been a fast and thorough investigation, then the experts would have had more information with which to establish the real cause of her husband’s death.

Violation of Article 2 (investigation)

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