Classification societies are commercial — OK?

There is an easy side, and also a more wide-ranging and difficult one, to the CJEU’s decision last week in RINA SpA, Case 614/18, ECLI:EU:C:2020:349 on a point concerning the Brussels I Regulation.

Something over 14 years ago, a Red Sea ro-ro ferry, the Al Salam Boccaccio 98, sank with horrendous loss of life on a voyage between Duba in Saudi Arabia and Safaga in Egypt. She was registered in Panama and classed with Italian classification society RINA SpA.

A number of passengers sued RINA in its home state, Italy, for negligently certifying the vessel fit to sail, relying on what is now Art.4 of Brussels I Recast (the case actually concerned the previous 2001 jurisdiction regulation). RINA however had a trick up its sleeve. It pleaded sovereign immunity, on the basis that although it had been chosen and paid by the owners of the vessel, it had been acting on behalf of the Panamanian government. For that reason it argued that the Italian court had no jurisdiction over it in this respect, and that the Brussels Regulation was beside the point since this was not a civil or commercial matter. The Tribunale di Genova, faced with interesting issues of EU and public international law, understandably made a reference to the CJEU on the matter; was the claim covered by the Regulation?

The court, following the Advocate-General, had no doubt that RINA’s plea was misconceived. Even if the society had been acting for the Panamanian authorities in certifying the vessel so that those authorities in turn could, as the organs of the state of registration, give her the necessary clean bill of health, this was a matter governed by private law principles. According to the generally accepted rules of public international law, there was no way this could be construed as an act iure imperii; it was therefore covered by the Regulation.

It follows that in so far as it is sought to make a classification society liable for damage, loss or injury (a matter on which European and other legal systems differ considerably, and which we have no intention of going into here), lawyers can at least sleep easy on this point: as regards jurisdiction, it is simply a matter of looking up the relevant provisions of Brussels I Recast. It is a fair inference that the same also goes for other certification bodies (something likely to be relevant for international product liability cases) and probably state licensing bodies such as the CAA in so far as they are sued under private law provisions.

So much for the easy bit. Now for the harder one. Does this mean that state immunity law has now been quietly Europeanised as a matter of principle? This issue is not dealt with as such, and was explicitly left open by the Advocate-General in Para [106] of his opinion. The original Jurisdiction Regulation said nothing about it either; and although the Recast version adds a further few words to Art.1.1 saying explicitly that it does not apply to acts done iure imperii, this takes us little further.

The answer seems to be that we do have de facto Europeanisation, but only partly. RINA, read closely, says merely that in so far as Brussels I applies to an EU-based defendant, it is not open to a member state to apply a more generous home-grown version of state immunity and decline jurisdiction. It does not state the converse; namely, that if EU law regards a matter as covered by state immunity then an EU domestic court must not take jurisdiction at all. Why the case ended up in the CJEU in the first place is apparent only from a careful look at the facts: Italy indeed does as a matter of domestic law apply a very generous doctrine of state immunity, and it was this that the claimant sought, successfully, to sideline.

So for the moment – and, assuming Lugano or something similar to Brussels I applies after the transition period – English lawyers can breathe easy on this point too. There’s life yet in their well-thumbed copies of the State Immunity Act 1978.

COVID-19: An Occupational Disease?

On April 28, 2020, the global trade union movement urged governments and occupational health and safety bodies around the world to recognise SARS-CoV-2 as an occupational hazard, and COVID-19 as an occupational disease.

In practice, this means that the employer’s duty to take reasonable measures to protect the health and safety of their employees will cover COVID-19 related risks. Furthermore, it means that employees will be able to benefit from compensation schemes provided for those injured, or the dependants of the deceased, whenever there has been injury or death due to work-related accidents or occupational diseases.

Recognising COVID-19 as an occupational disease will be crucial to ‘key workers’, such as seafarers. For that it will ensure that adequate preventive measures are adopted and, if they contract COVID-19 at work, that existing compensation and liability regimes remain applicable.

PASSENGERS SUE CRUISE LINES FOR NEGLIGENCE OVER COVID-19 OUTBREAK

Ever since January 2020, it became evident that COVID-19 will place significant hurdles on cruise ship operators. The quarantine of approximately 2,500 passengers on board Diamond Princess off the coast of Japan that led to 700 confirmed cases of coronavirus was the first hard knock on the cruise industry. However, this was not enough to urge cruise ship operators to temporarily suspend their activities to minimise new transmissions on cruise vessels, or at the very least, to implement policies to prevent similar outbreaks.

Cruise ship operators continued their business as usual for more than a month. It was only mid-March, when some of the major cruise ship operators announced the voluntary suspension of scheduled cruises amid the severity of the public health crisis. Arguably, this delayed response on the part of cruise ship operators led to more passengers being exposed to COVID-19 with several passengers testing positive on cruise vessels around the world.

It now comes as no surprise that several claims have been brought against cruise ship operators over their response to COVID-19 outbreak. In early April, former passengers of the cruise ship Grand Princess filed lawsuits against the ship’s operators in federal courts of the US, claiming negligence on the part of the company in failing to ensure the health and safety of its passengers. The claims ask for compensatory and punitive damages for lost earnings, medical expenses and mental distress.

The Grand Princess departed on February 21 for a cruise from San Francisco to Hawaii. Before sailing to Hawaii, the ship made a 10-day round-trip to Mexico, and 62 passengers and more than 1,000 crewmembers continued on the voyage to Hawaii. On February 25, a man, who had been on the Mexico trip, died of the coronavirus. At this point, some members of the ship’s crew had already shown COVID-19 related symptoms. The Grand Princess turned back to the US mainland and skipped a planned stop in Mexico. On 5 March, passengers were quarantined in their cabins. However, COVID-19 had already been spreading on the ship, and 103 would ultimately test positive, with two passengers and one crew member now dead. On 9 March, passengers were moved into quarantine ashore.

The claims allege that the cruise ship operators were negligent in failing to inform Hawaii passengers that several passengers on the Mexico trip had shown COVID-19 related symptoms, failing to disinfect the ship thoroughly after the Mexico trip, and failing to screen passengers and crew before departing for Hawaii. In this respect, the claims mention that on the Grand Princess, the ship’s crew only asked passengers boarding the ship to ‘fill out a piece of paper confirming they were not sick’. The claims further allege that the cruise ship operators were negligent during the cruise in failing to inform passengers about the former passenger’s death and failing to quarantine passengers in their cabins on February 25.

Like in all personal injury claims, the liability of cruise ship operators for a passenger’s illness, injury or death will turn upon two legal questions. The first is whether the company was in any way negligent. In this respect, the claimants will have to prove that the ship operators did not exercise reasonable skill and care to ensure the health and safety of their passengers. On the facts, this may be possible, especially if it is proven that the company knew that several passengers on the Mexico trip had contracted COVID-19 and failed to disinfect the ship or at least to warn passengers boarding the ship in San Francisco.

The second is whether the company’s negligence caused the passenger’s illness. That is more problematic because it is hard to trace the exact moment when a person is infected with COVID-19. According to the official guidance of the WHO, the incubation period of COVID-19 (i.e. the time between catching the virus and beginning to have symptoms of the disease) ranges from 1 to 14 days, most commonly around 5 days. It is, thus, possible that some passengers had already been infected with COVID-19 when boarding the Grand Princess on February 21. Nevertheless, an argument may revolve around the fact that the company allowed 1,000 potentially infected people to share confined space with approximately 2,000 potentially uninfected passengers.

Assuming that both these questions will be answered in favour of the claimants, then a further question will arise as to whether the passengers of Grand Princess were in any way negligent in contracting COVID-19. If so, the company will be able to benefit from the defence of contributory negligence.

It is, thus, interesting now to see whether these claims will actually reach the courts or whether they will be settled in private.