Of weekend sailors, docks and marinas.

Decisions that amuse law professors often end up as footnotes in law books because they’re not very significant in the great run of things. One suspects this is true of Teare J’s erudite judgment about marinas today in Holyhead Marina Ltd v Farrer [2020] EWHC 1750 (Admlty), but it’s still worth a short note.

Holyhead marina, like most marinas, is a floating labyrinth of wooden pontoons and walkways designed to cram in as many weekend sailors’ prides and joys as it can. A couple of years ago it was hit by Storm Emma and boats moored there suffered over £5 m worth of damage. The hull insurers sued, whereupon the marina raised the issue of limitation, claiming that under s.191 of the MSA 1995 it could limit liability to a fairly piddling sum based on the limitation figure applicable to the largest vessel (yacht) that had visited it in the previous five years.

This gave rise to the first issue: the right to limit was limited to “docks”. Was a marina, an erection that floated on water rather than solid land that abutted it, a “dock” — a term that included “wet docks and basins, tidal docks and basins, locks, cuts, entrances, dry docks, graving docks, gridirons, slips, quays, wharves, piers, stages, landing places and jetties”? Teare J had no doubt that it was, despite its relative insubstantiality and lack of any connection with commercial shipping. We suggest that this must be right. True, a mere buoy or dolphin shouldn’t be a dock, but beyond that essentially anywhere where vessels can tie up and people can board and disembark should be included. It is useful to have confirmation that s.191 will be generously construed, and technical pettifogging about the definition of a dock discouraged. Insurers now know where they stand.

A few minor points. First, the hull insurers argued that Holyhead was guilty of conduct breaking limitation. Although Teare J refused to strike out this plea as hopeless, he was clearly very sceptical of it, again one suspects with reason. Secondly, the hull insurers advanced a hopeful argument that because the marina was in vhf contact with users all over Holyhead Port, its limit fell to be reckoned by that applicable to the large Irish Sea ferry that visited the port. This received short shrift: what mattered was the area of which the marina was in effective physical or legal control.

Thirdly, an interesting question: why didn’t the marina have a clause limiting its liability to the yacht owners who used it under contract? Or did it, but was it sceptical of the ability of such a clause to withstand scrutiny under the Consumer Rights Act 2015 (yachtsmen being consumers)? It’s likely we’ll never know. But marinas up and down the kingdom, together with their liability insurers, might do well to look through their standard contract terms, if they wish to avoid having to argue the toss in future about an obscure provision in the Merchant Shipping Act.

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