Following the shock involuntary-homicide verdict against the dive-buddy of a scuba diver who died in 2020, Malta’s Professional Diving Schools Association has responded with a statement today (23 November).
The PDSA, representing the majority of Maltese islands dive-centres, says that in sentencing Arthur Castillo, 60, to a suspended prison sentence last week, magistrate Simone Grech had failed to distinguish between recreational- and technical-diver training, with its emphasis on self-reliance, and had not consulted diver-training specialists who could have provided more balanced expert opinion.
It has also raised concerns that the guilty verdict echoes the highly publicised Stephen Martin involuntary homicide case, which was overturned at the start of 2016 only after an 18-month battle.
An outline of the case against Castillo that followed the death of his buddy Christine Gauci on a dive at Mgarr ix-Xini in Gozo appeared on Divernet on 19 November.
“Malta is one of only a handful of countries in the world to have legally binding parameters which we in the diving Industry must follow in order to ensure we provide a high standard of safety, training and service to our clients,” says the PDSA.
“A buddy, during any dive, recreational as well as technical, can never be held responsible for the other diver, if all safety procedures and protocols are followed correctly. This is no different to any other outdoor pursuits such as jetski, skiing, rock-climbing, bike adventure etc.”
The PDSA statement outlines the differences in training and safety procedures between recreational and technical diving. Training for the former is based on the buddy system, it says, explaining that “every dive carries some risk, and having a dive-buddy helps reduce those risks.
“For technical diving, the training and protocols are stricter,” the statement continues. “Technical divers are taught to be 100% self-reliant. They are not taught on the buddy system, but are obliged to plan every dive in detail, try to foresee all eventualities and plan for these without relying on help from anyone else.” Technical divers can dive in teams but are trained to be responsible for their own equipment and dive-plan and never to place themselves in danger.
“This unfortunate sentence raises a number of unanswered questions,” says the PDSA. “From the judgment transcript, the important distinction between whether or not this was a recreational or technical dive is never considered. The type of equipment used and the fact that this was a dive with decompression does suggest this was a technical dive.”
Both Gauci and Castillo held technical-diving qualifications, so would have been trained to be 100% self-reliant. However, as the case evidence showed, Gauci's drysuit had malfunctioned at the start of the dive. “Self-reliant divers are trained to abort the dive immediately in the eventuality of equipment malfunction,” points out the PDSA.
In Malta such incidents resulting in injury or death require the appointment of a magistrate to start an enquiry and examine all aspects to determine whether a court hearing is merited. The magistrate is also responsible for appointing suitable expert witnesses.
“We note that two experts were appointed in this case, a scuba-diving equipment specialist and a hyperbaric doctor,” says the PDSA. “The obvious lack of an expert in diver training and procedures raises serious questions and concerns.”
The association has drawn attention to parallels with the case of Stephen Martin, a visiting British club-diver who also faced involuntary homicide charges following the death of his girlfriend and another man on a Gozo dive. The fall-out from the case raised concerns at the time that it could deter UK divers from travelling to Malta, or buddy-diving.
The PDSA comments that the Martin case “taught us how important it is for a magistrate to appoint suitably qualified experts when it comes to scuba-diving cases. Mr Martin's case of wrongful conviction was the result of an expert over-reaching his field of specialisation by providing misinformation on matters outside his area of expertise.”
Castillo has indicated that he will appeal against his sentence of two years in prison suspended for four years, and payment of two-thirds of the costs of appointing the two experts. The PDSA says that it will follow the appeal “and is prepared to assist the court, in its capacity, in any way required”.