Athens Convention- Elaboration on key terms “defect in ship” and “fault”

Warner v. Scapa Flow Charters (No 2) [2021] CSOH 92

The pursuer was the widow of Mr Warner who tragically died in a technical exploratory diving trip on a wreck off Cape Wrath on 14 August 2012. The defenders facilitated the trip and skippered the boat (MV Jean Elaine). While walking in his cumbersome gear, including diving fins, preparing for a dive, Mr Warner fell off the deck of the vessel. This fall caused him, unknowingly, to suffer internal injuries. Stating that he was fit, he started his dive but during the dive he got into difficulties and made a rapid surface ascent due to the pain of his internal injuries. By the time he surfaced, his breathing apparatus was no longer in situ and he drowned.       

Mrs Warner brought an action for damages on behalf of her son. The action was within the scope of the Athens Convention 1974 (by virtue of the Carriage of Passengers and their Luggage by Sea (Domestic Carriage) Order 1987). It was argued that:

  1. Mr Warner’s injury arose from or in connection with a “defect in ship”. This meant under Article 3(3) of the Athens Convention that the carrier’s fault could be presumed.
  2. Even if not, the carrier was at fault as it failed to make adequate risk assessment.

The Outer House of the Court of Session held that the injury was not connected with or arose from a “defect in ship”. There was no evidence that the configuration of the deck defective. Also, it was pointed out that there were handrails that could have been put to sensible use, but at the time of the incident Mr Warner was not using them. The Court, however, held that the carrier was at fault in that he failed to recognise that the system of dive preparation he had set up or allowed to develop permitted or even encouraged divers to walk on deck in fins, and that was an inherently risky activity to the extent that consideration should have been given to putting in place mechanisms apt to eliminate it or at least bring it under control. Given the known risk of falls while walking in fins, particularly given the equipment worn by technical divers, and the unavailability of swift medical assistance on board, there should have been put in place proper precautions to mitigate the risk. Such precautions would have eradicating or minimising the risk of falling and Mr Warner would not have fallen at all, or it he did, he would not have  sustained a serious injury as he in fact sustained, because the force of any fall would probably have been broken by him holding on to a handrail or being supported by the onboard deckhand.  Accordingly, the defenders were liable to make reparation to the pursuer in terms of Art 3(1) of the Athens Convention 1974.               

What do we learn from the case?

The Athens Convention 1974 does not provide a definition for the term “defect in ship”. This means that determining whether an injury has occasioned from a “defect in ship” needs to be addressed by the national court. It is hard to suggest that the court’s handling of the matter in the present case is not satisfactory. That said, it should be noted that 2002 version of the Athens Convention provides a more rounded definition for this term. There, a defect in the ship has been described as “any malfunction, failure or non-compliance with applicable safety regulations in respect of any part of the ship or its equipment when used for the escape, evacuation, embarkation and disembarkation of passengers, or when used for the propulsion, steering, safe navigation, mooring, anchoring, arriving at or leaving berth or anchorage, or damage control after flooding; or when used for the launching of life saving appliances” (Article 4 of the Athens Convention 2002). Given that the main finding of the Court here was that the carrier failed in their risk assessment and there was no evidence that the deck’s configuration was defective, it is unlikely that a different outcome would have been reached even if Athens Convention 2002 had applied in this case.       

It is also left to the national law to determine what amounts to “fault” for the purposes of Article 3 of the Athens Convention 1974. This enabled the Court to adopt a flexible approach in determining whether the carrier was at fault for failing to make appropriate assessment of the risk. The Court initially focussed on a statutory duty to carry out a risk assessment of those on board under Regulation 7 of the Merchant Shipping and Fishing Vessels (Health and Safety at Work) Regulations 1997 but then moved its focus to general duty to exercise reasonable care for the health and safety of others onboard and a positive obligation to assess risk. This approach is in line with the general principles of tort law and a similar approach has been employed by British courts in the context of deliberating what amounts to “fault” under the Athens Convention- see Janet Dawkins v. Carnival PlC (t/a) P & O Cruises [2011] EWCA Civ 1237.

One positive development coming out of the case, especially for small maritime operators and their insurers, is that the Court found that a risk assessment was carried out by the skipper here although it was not written down or recognised as such (and of course although it was not adequate). This indicates that risk assessments need not to be formal affairs and a dynamic risk assessment carried out by the skipper or operator might be deemed to be adequate in some instances.            

For a comprehensive analysis of these issues see:

Carriage of Passengers by Sea: A Critical Analysis of the International Regimeby B. Soyer and G. Leloudas published

[2018] Michigan State University International Law Review, Volume: 26, Issue: 3, Pages: 483 – 535

This article has been cited with approval by the District Court of Columbia in Erwin-Simpson v. Berhard (DC DC, 2019).

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