Careful who you sell that ship to!

Safety in ship recycling has been a priority of the EU for more than seven years. Under EU Regulation 1257/2013, in force since 2018, there is a complex system of EU approval of ship recycling facilities, it being illegal to send an EU-registered ship for recycling to an unapproved facility (meaning as often as not a not-very-deserted beach in India or Bangladesh, where she is broken up essentially by hand). This Regulation is to be retained EU law post-Brexit, though from the end of this year it will be significantly narrowed, in that it will only apply to UK-registered vessels (i.e. pretty few).

But quite a lot of ship recycling is outside the regulation. A case in point was the Maran Centaurus, a vessel previously in the news as the victim of a high-profile Somali hijacking in 2009 that led to payment of a then-record ransom of about $7 million. Owned by Greek interests, at the end of her life she was reflagged to Palau and sold to a buyer for demolition, who in turn resold her to a beachside Bangladeshi concern. During demolition a worker operating in very dangerous conditions was killed. His widow rightly concluded that the demolishers were not worth powder and shot. She instead sued the owner’s managing agents, a UK company who acting under the owners’ instructions had arranged the sale, alleging that it should have been foreseeable that unless they took steps to ensure that the vessel ended up in the hands of responsible breakers she would be broken up — as she was — without any serious regard for worker safety. The agents denied fault and applied for a strikeout, on the basis that a seller of a ship owed no duty in respect of dangerous practices that might later occur in relation to her. This was not, they said, a case of damage caused by hazardous materials aboard the vessel injuring a worker: there was nothing more here than a sale indirectly to a person likely to have a less than satisfactory attitude to industrial safety.

This writer has quite a lot of sympathy for this view. But in Begum v Maran (UK) Ltd [2020] EWHC 1846 (QB) Jay J declined a strikeout, regarding it as highly arguable that, despite the vessel herself not being unusually hazardous, this was a case where the defendants had created a foreseeable risk of harm and as such potentially owed a duty of care to the worker concerned.

Note that this is not a holding that there was a duty of care: merely that the argument that there was one wasn’t a non-starter. Nevertheless, it should worry shipowners everywhere (and cause them to check on their insurance coverage). It might even extend further: for example, what of a shipowner who sells (or bareboat charters) a vessel to an operator known to have a dodgy safety record: the logic of the Maran case seems to apply here too, and if it is followed we cannot rule out liability in the seller or owner.

Admittedly the if might be a biggish one. We said that we had sympathy for the defendant’s argument. The chances are that this case will now settle so we won’t ever get a final answer here. But the defendants’ case is strong. The case for making owners responsible for policing the safety records of disponees is by no means obvious, any mote than it is obvious that in selling my car I should have to take care lest the buyer is a known drink driver. It may well be worth fighting this issue again if, as seems highly likely, it comes back to the English courts in another case.

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