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ACTION BY FIREMAN HARBOUR BOARD REPORT The action in which Lawrence Joseph Keenan, fireman (Mr. Haigh and Mr. A. K. Turner), is claiming £650 damages against the Auckland Harbour Board (Mr. Hamer) for alleged libel was continued in the Supreme Court to-day before Mr. Justice Callan and a jury. " The claim arose out of an application by the harbour board to the Auckland manpower officer to terminate plaintiff's employment as a fireman on a suction dredge in which, it was alleged, it was stated plaintiff had been guilty of sabotage by putting sand and shell in certain oil-cups and attempting to wreck the work of the dredge. Plaintiff further alleged that a similar statement was made by a harbour board executive to the secretary of the Harbour ?Board Employees' Union. Plaintiff gave evidence that three weeks after his engagement in October, 1943, he was made union delegate on the suction dredge. He detailed several interviews he had with Norman Taylor, head clerk, about conditions on the dredge and, finally, Christmas holiday pay. Taylor told witness he was always making trouble. On January 23 witness was suspended without being given a reason. He saw the union secretary, who rang Mr. Taylor and then informed witness that he was charged with misconduct. Witness demanded ah investigation and saw the manpower officer, who showed him a letter from the board accusing him of sabotage. After the manpower officer had investigated the case and declined to terminate witness' engagement with the board, witness reported for work and was told the board was appealing. Witness said the board applied to put him on lower-paid work and appealed against an adverse decision. When this appeal was dismissed the board eventually took him back as a fireman. He requested an apology and withdrawal from the board, but this was declined. In cross-examination witness said that Taylor repeated to Ashton, at witness' request for information, the reasons given for his suspension. He did not think Ashton's opinion of him was affected by that. Witness denied that complaints had been made to him personally about his work as a fireman.

Evidence of the discovery of sand in the siphon cup of the dredge engine, and of sand in the siphon pipe, was given by Charles Holmes, greaser on the dredge. This occurred when Keenan was working as a fireman on the dredge in January, said witness, but he had no knowledge of Keenan being in the engine room on these occasions. Union Secretary Called In Walter Ashton, secretary of the Auckland Harbour Board's Em•ployees' Union, testified that Taylor had referred to Keenan in his capacity as a union delegate as "a nuisance who was always causing trouble." Taylor also complained of Keenan taking days off without authority. At Keenan's request witness asked Taylor what Keenan Avas suspended for, and was told for sabotage by putting sand in oil cups. Witness then instituted an investigation by the manpower officer, which resulted in the officer finding there was no reason to suspect Keenan. At that time, when the engineer, Melville, was asked why he suspected Keenan, he replied that Keenan had caused a lot of trouble on the dredge. When there was trouble about getting Keenan back in the board's employ Taylor told witness they did not want to employ anyone who would sabotage the machinery. Taylor also said he hated the sight of Keenan. To Mr. Hamer witness said that though Keenan acted as union delegate in 1943 he was then in the Seamen's Union, not the Harbour Board Employees' Union. Taylor's statement about the reason for Keenan's suspension was what had been specifically asked for. He did not think Keenan had the opportunity to do the sabotage alleged, and the only reason given him for suspecting Keenan was that Taylor and Melville did not like Keenan because he caused trouble with the men. Witness therefore did not think the suspicion against Keenan of sabotage was an honest suspicion. Case for Defence For defendant, Mr. Hamer moved for judgment on the ground that the action was barred by the provisions of section 7 of the Emergency Regulations Act, 1939, that the letter written and the words spoken by Taylor were absolutely privileged, and that the words complained of were not defamatory in the legal sense. Counsel also moved for a non-suit on the ground that the letter written and words spoken were on occasions of qualified privilege, and there was no evidence of malice. Mr. Turner agreed that there was a qualified privilege, and his Honor reserved the motions for later consideration. Mr. Hamer said the jury had the task of finding whether malice had been shown against Keenan in the letter written and the words spoken; whether there was any indirect reason beyond the need to do their duty to the board's officers. The question was whether the state of mind of the harbour board officials who acted was an honest state of mind. The dredge was carrying out important work for the Admir&lty and had been specially prepared for the work. Towards the end of 1944 Mr. Holderness lear|?d the job was not progressing s/.isfactorily and that the work was being slowed up by absenteeism and suspicious incidents.

Mr. Holderness was told that sand was found in the engine room oilcups on two occasions—a Friday and a Monday. Sabotage was the only explanation and the dredge engineer, Mr. Melville, gave reasons for suspecting Keenan. Mr. Holderness was in a predicament, in view of the importance of the work, and acted in accordance with his honest belief that Keenan was responsible. No reason was given to Keenan, but by the regulations it was imperative for Mr. Holderness to give reasons to the manpower officer, said counsel. In the course of the letter he wrote: "It would be criminal negligence to continue to employ a man believed to be responsible for so grave a misdemeanour." That indicated that Mr. Holderness acted purely from a sense of duty. As to Mr. Taylor's statement to the union secretary, that was merely a reply to a request by Keenan for information. The only view of the board officials was that it was not deemed prudent in view of the importance of the work to have Keenan on the job and it was hoped the manpower office would have him shifted elsewhere. The fact of the subsequent applications by the board officials, he submitted, was evidence of their sincerity in this view.

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Bibliographic details

LIBEL ALLEGED, Auckland Star, Volume LXXVI, Issue 191, 14 August 1945

Word Count

LIBEL ALLEGED Auckland Star, Volume LXXVI, Issue 191, 14 August 1945

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