Article III(1) and IV(1) of the Hague Rules. Navigational errors by master in passage plan preparation before and at the beginning of the voyage.

Yesterday, the Supreme Court gave judgment in Alize 1954 and another (Appellants) v Allianz Elementar Versicherungs AG and others (Respondents) [2021] UKSC 51.

The case arose out of the grounding of the container vessel CMA CGM LIBRA on leaving the port of Xiamen, China, on a voyage to Hong Kong. The Admiralty Judge, Teare J, found that the vessel’s defective passage plan was causative of the grounding and that this involved a breach of the carrier’s seaworthiness obligation under article III rule 1 of the Hague Rules. The Court of Appeal upheld the decision. Owners contended that these decisions were wrong because the vessel was not unseaworthy and/or due diligence was exercised, and that any negligence in passage planning was a navigational fault which is exempted under article IV rule 2(a) of the Hague Rules.

Two issues were raised the appeal. First, is the carrier’s seaworthiness obligation under the Hague Rules subject to a category-based distinction between a vessel’s quality of seaworthiness, its attributes and equipment, or navigability and the crew’s act of navigating which concerns how the crew operates the vessel using those attributes? Second, what amounts to due diligence under article IV rule 1 of the Hague Rules? Has the carrier shown due diligence if it has equipped the vessel with all that is necessary for her to be safely navigated, including a competent crew?

The Supreme Court upheld the decisions of the Court of Appeal and the Admiralty Court. The carrier’s obligation under the Hague Rules was not subject to a category based distinction between a vessel’s quality of seaworthiness or navigability and the crew’s act of navigating. Given the “essential importance” of passage planning for the “safety … of navigation”, applying the prudent owner test, a vessel is likely to be unseaworthy if she begins her voyage without a passage plan or if she does so with a defective passage plan which endangers the safety of the vessel. The fact that the defective passage plan involves neglect or default in “the navigation of the ship” within the article IV rule 2(a) exception was no defence to a claim for loss or damage caused by the vessel being rendered unseaworthy before and at the beginning of the voyage as a result of that navigational  negligence. The vessel was therefore unseaworthy before and at the beginning of the voyage by reason of the defective passage plan.

The owners were unable to show that they had taken due diligence to make the vessel seaworthy. Their duty was non-delegable and the crew’s failure to navigate the ship safely was capable of constituting a lack of due diligence by the carrier. It made no difference that the delegated task of making the vessel seaworthy involved navigation. The carrier is liable for a failure to exercise due diligence by the master and deck officers of his vessel in the preparation of a passage plan for the vessel’s voyage, irrespective of the fact that navigation is the responsibility of the master and involves the exercise by the master and deck officers of their specialist skill and judgment.

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