Can Independent Contractors be sued under the Athens Regime?

Sperling v. Queen of Nanaimo [2020] BCSC 1852 (CanLII)

Athens Convention Relating to the Carriage of Passengers and Their Luggage at Sea 1974 has been implemented into Canadian Law by the Marine Liability Act 2001. By virtue of Article 3.3 of the Athens Convention, a carrier is liable for the negligence of its “servants and agents”.

The plaintiff claims damages for personal injuries allegedly sustained when the Queen of Nanaimo, a ferry on which she was a passenger, hit the dock at Mayne Island BC on 3 August 2010. It is the contention of the plaintiff that she was thrown from a chair abroad the ferry and struck her head on a pole.  In addition to the owner and operator of the ferry, the present applicants, Ulstein Maritime Ltd and Rolls Royce Ltd, are named as the defendants in this action. They are alleged to have been involved in “the design, construction, installation, maintenance, service, inspection, refit and/or repairs of the operating systems, equipment and/or machinery of the ferry, including but not limited to those relating to its propulsion, breaking and or steering systems.”

The applicants (Ulstein) seek a declaration under r 9-4 of the Supreme Court Civil Rules that any liability they may have to the plaintiff is subject to a monetary limit of about CA$ 325,000 (the limit set by the Athens Convention 1974). Article 11 of the Athens Convention 1974 extends the benefit of the monetary limit to servants or agents of a carrier acting within the scope of their employment.

 Rule 9-4 of the Supreme Court Civil Rules stipulate:

…(2) If, in the opinion of the court, the decision on the point of law substantially disposes of the whole action or of any distinct claim, ground of defence, set-off or counterclaim, the court may dismiss the action or make any order it considers will further the object of these [Rules]…

If the application of Ulstein is successful, their liability and the extent of their liability would be determined under the Athens Convention 1974. This is an outcome that plaintiff wishes to avoid at any cost as bringing a personal injury claim with no limit to liability outside the Athens Convention regime against Ulstein would obviously yield serious advantages for the plaintiff in terms of litigation strategy.  

The key question, therefore, is whether Ulstein can be regarded as the “servant or agent” of the carrier for the purposes of the Athens Convention 1974. These terms have not been defined in the Convention and it is natural that when determining the meaning of these terms each contracting state will be tempted to defer to its legal system. This is precise what the applicants suggest that the Court should refrain from. It is the contention of the applicants that common law definitions of, and distinctions between servants/employees, agents and independent contractors should not apply to the interpretation of international agreements given that such agreements are meant to apply in multiple jurisdictions under many legal systems (a similar point was made in J.D. Irving Ltd v. Siemens Canada Ltd 2016 FC 69 at [260]).

The author has sympathy to this approach (as it promotes uniformity of the Athens regime) even though he is well aware of several cases where courts in contracting states have applied their national law in answering questions not addressed in the relevant international convention.

To advance their argument further the applicants argue that there is a distinction between contractors who repair or maintain a vessel, including installing necessary equipment, and those who manufacture or modify a vessel or its components. It is the contention of the applicants that the former are agents of the carrier while the latter are not. Applying this logic, the applicants suggest that they should be treated as the agent of the carrier for the purposes of the Athens Convention as their contract with the operators required them to maintain, service, inspect the vessel in addition to repair, design and install necessary parts.

The plaintiff, on the other hand, does not agree the extended definition of agency applies, and insists that common law definitions remain relevant.

The Honourable Mr Justice N Smith dismissed the application of the applicants under Rule 9-4 indicating that the ruling sought by the applicants would likely not be decisive or shorten the trial and it is a point of law that cannot be resolved without hearing evidence. He indicated that it would be for the judge to decide the nature of the relationship between the applicants and the operators, what work the applicants were engaged to perform.

It is fair to say that the issue of whether an independent contractor who is engaged in maintenance of the vessel can be regarded as an agent or employee of the carrier for the purposes of the Athens Convention is still an open one. It is submitted that at trial the court should attempt to maintain the objective behind extending the application of the Athens regime to the agents and employees of the carrier. In a technical sense, the applicants here do not seem to be an agent or employee of the carrier (under common law). However, if they are actively involved in maintaining the vessel’s systems as an independent contractor should their position be any different than an employee onboard responsible for maintaining the vessel? Put differently, if their activities have a significant impact on the passenger’s safety onboard the vessel, is it in the spirit of the Convention to leave them outside the Athens regime? It is expected that the judge will be able to shed light on the position of independent contractors who have an ongoing responsibility to maintain the vessel from the perspective of the Athens regime. Ultimately, the finding will be binding from the perspective of Canadian law. However, it will certainly be an analysis that will be put forward for consideration when the same issue arises in another jurisdiction that has implemented the Athens regime into its legal system.                             

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