Limitation — not everyone who operates a vessel is an operator

At least one P&I Club will, one suspects, be feeling rather rueful after this morning’s Court of Appeal decision in Splitt Chartering APS v Saga Shipholding Norway [2021] EWCA Civ 1880.

The Norwegian Mibau group undertook an operation for Costain, involving the transport and deposit of vast amounts of rock in the sea under Shakespeare Cliff near Folkestone. Getting the rock to the correct place involved towing a loaded dumb barge from Norway and anchoring it where the rock was to be placed. The barge was owned by one Mibau company, Splitt; for internal accounting reasons it was chartered to another such company, Stema AS, which also owned the rock. On arrival the barge was anchored, with a crew put on board employed by a third Mibau company, Stema UK. That crew took orders from, and acted on the instructions of, Stema AS.

Despite ominous weather forecasts, Stema UK’s crew assumed the barge could be safely left unmanned at anchor. They were seriously wrong. She dragged her anchor in a storm and sliced an underwater cable which proved costly to repair. The question arose whether, in a suit by the cable owners, Stema UK could limit its liability. Although clearly not an owner or charterer of the barge under Art.1(2) of the LLMC 1976, it argued that because of its de facto control at the relevant time it had been either a manager or an operator. The cable owners argued that it was neither.

Teare J held Stema UK entitled to limit. (See [2020] EWHC 1294 (Admty), noted in this blog here.) True, because it had lacked executive authority, being under the orders of Stema AS, it could not have been a manager. But it, or rather its employees, had undoubtedly been in physical control of, and had operated the machinery aboard, the vessel; and this meant that it counted as her operator within Art.1(2).

This was a commercially sensible result. It meant that the ability to limit stood to be fairly generously granted to any entity in physical control of a vessel; it also had the extra advantage that corporate groups would not be unduly prejudiced merely because for organisational reasons they chose to parcel out the functions of ownership and physical manipulation to different group entities.

Unfortunately it did not find favour with the Court of Appeal. Phillips LJ, giving the only judgment, took the view that just as an employee would not be an operator in his own right since he acted only on someone else’s orders, an entity physically operating a vessel as the catspaw of another entity was in the same position. It followed that because of its lack of authority to act on its own initiative without contacting Stema AS, Stema UK was liable in full since it was outside the charmed circle of those entitled to limit.

For what it is worth, with the greatest of respect this blog is inclined to prefer the reasoning in the judgment below. We see it as not only commercially rational but also more certain, in that making the status of operator dependent on an estimation of the amount of discretion allowed to an entity seems to encourage some hair-splitting arguments.

But no matter. As Phillips LJ pointed out, the effect of the Court of Appeal’s decision can easily be avoided by making sure that the people physically in charge of a vessel are seconded to, or otherwise technically employed by, the company with the serious decision-making power. No doubt, indeed, as this is being written P&I club lawyers will be sharpening their pencils with a view to drafting the necessary advice to members, and possibly even changes to the rules so as to back up that advice. As ever, a little discreet bureaucratic tinkering can pay big dividends.

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