Unseaworthy ship, or just a careless crew?

If you were mown down by a car, you would presumably think it a tad surreal if the driver got out, looked you over, and walked away, saying “I don’t have to pay you a penny. There was nothing wrong with my car. I merely drove it very badly.” Unless, of course, you were a lawyer dealing with carriage of goods by sea. In that case you would understand perfectly; after all, this merely reflects the distinction you will have imbibed with your mother’s milk between Article III r 1 and Article IV r 2(a) of the Hague-Visby Rules. The one says that anyone’s failure to show due diligence to make your vessel seaworthy makes you liable even when it’s not your fault; the other, that negligence in navigation excuses you from liability even where it was your fault.

Drawing the distinction between these has never been easy. The latest episode comes in the Court of Appeal’s decision today in The CGM Libra [2020] EWCA Civ 293. A sizeable container ship sailed from Xiamen in China (a pleasant subtropical spot which older readers may remember as Amoy) in the wee hours and grounded, rather expensively, a shortish distance outside. The reason she grounded was that when preparing the passage plan the owners had indolently failed to transcribe a Notice to Mariners indicating that outside the strict boundaries of the fairway the soundings on local charts were completely unreliable.

In a general average claim by owners against cargo, the issue arose: was this a matter of navigational fault (owners not liable and hence entitled to contribution) or unseaworthiness (owners liable and thus barred)? Teare J held for unseaworthiness. Owners appealed, on the basis that failing to make a note of possible shallows so as to avoid them was a clear navigational error. But the Court of Appeal was having none of it. Even if the failure to prepare an adequate passage plan was a navigational sin, there was no reason why it could not also amount to unseaworthiness in so far as it was due to someone’s negligence before the voyage began.

The holding itself is pretty unexceptionable. If lack of proper charts on board at the start of the voyage is unseaworthiness, it would be odd if the same did not apply to the absence of a proper passage plan, this having been regarded as more or less as essential for a dozen years or so at the time of the events in question.

On the other hand, cases like this do begin to raise the question: have we now reached the point that where there is any negligence before the voyage, there will be a case of unseaworthiness so as to leave the Article IV(2)(a) defence in effect a dead letter? Some incautious words suggest we might have. At [61] Flaux LJ was sceptical whether unseaworthiness had to stem from an attribute of the vessel at all, and Haddon-Cave LJ seems to have suggested that the distinction was simply temporal: negligence before departure is unseaworthiness, for owners’ account, and later negligence for cargo’s account.

But this would look odd, apart from being for obvious reasons unwelcome to P&I interests. Does it make sense to say that a vessel is unseaworthy even though we cannot say what it is about it that makes it unseaworthy? It seems doubtful. One strongly suspects that The CGM Libra will not be the last word, and that we may well see more litigation before too long aimed at clearing up the awkward distinction between bad ships and careless crews.

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