No strikeout for Bangladeshi ship scrapping claim: but don’t hold your breath

As we mentioned on this blog last August, these days you have to be careful who you sell an old ship to. In Begum v Maran [2021] EWCA Civ 326 MUK, the English managers of a Liberian ship fit only for scrap, helped arrange her sale to a buyer who paid fairly handsomely. That buyer proceeded (entirely foreseeably) to have her scrapped by a thoroughly dodgy outfit called Zuma in a dangerous and environmentally irresponsible way on a Bangladeshi beach. A worker engaged in stripping the hulk fell to his death. Prospects of recovery from Zuma being low, if for no other reason because of a local one-year statute of limitations during the running of which nothing had been done, his widow sued MUK as of right in England because of its domicile here, alleging negligence. Jay J decided that it was arguable that MUK had owed the man a duty of care, and that the local limitations law might be circumvented, and refused a strikeout. MUK appealed.

The Court of Appeal yesterday allowed the case to go ahead, though only very grudgingly and on a more limited basis than Jay J. The Court was particularly sceptical on the limitation point. Under Rome II, applicable to the claim as it predated Brexit (and still applicable to post-Brexit claims in its domesticated form), the law governing the claim – including on the subject of limitation – was Bangladeshi. This immediately defeated the claimant unless she could escape it. The judge had regarded as possibly plausible a contention that Art.7 of Rome II allowed her to invoke English law because her husband’s death had resulted from environmental damage caused by an event here – namely, MTM’s arrangements for sale of the ship. But this was dismissed on appeal as unarguable: rightly so, since this simply wasn’t an environmental case in the first place. But the court did see it as arguable – just – that the limitation period was so short that an English court might disapply it on public policy grounds under Art.26 of Rome II, and ordered a preliminary issue on the point.

On the substantive points, the widow argued either that MUK had owed her husband a duty of care on the principle of Donoghue v Stevenson [1932] AC 562, or that MUK’s sale of the vessel when it should have known that it was likely to be dangerously demolished had created an immediate danger to her husband’s life and thus engendered a duty in respect of the bad practices of his employers Zuma.

Giving the lead judgment, Coulson J was very sceptical on the first point. This wasn’t, he said, a case of a disposal of a dangerous thing, but rather the furnishing of an opportunity for a third party to be negligent in respect of a thing not inherently perilous. Whether this could give rise to a duty his Lordship thought very doubtful indeed – but still not quite implausible enough to justify an immediate strikeout. Our view is that the doubts were fully justified. We normally expect employers to look after their employees; to put a duty on third parties to police the behaviour of contractors they engaged in that respect is to say the least drastic. Should I really have to scrutinise or supervise the employment practices of the builder I employ to extend my house in case one of his workers is hurt? It seems doubtful.

On the second point, the difficulty (a considerable one) was the general rule that people were not generally made responsible for the wrongs of others, however foreseeable. But, said Coulson J, there were possible exceptions where the danger in question had been created by a defendant. And while it seemed unlikely that this would apply here, the law was not absolutely clear and the prospect of persuading a sceptical judge to recognise a duty of care wasn’t dismal enough to deny the widow the chance to argue the toss. Her prospects might be slim, but she was entitled to chance her arm.

This case will possibly be hailed in the liberal media as an advance in the campaign to make big business in Britain take responsibility for the activities of its dodgier partners abroad. But commercial lawyers know better than to engage in chicken-counting. Remember, the claimant here only avoided a strikeout by the skin of her teeth. Her chances of recovering much over and above a nuisance value or reputation-saving settlement remain, it seems fair to say, pretty slim.

Oh, and one more thing. The ability to sue a UK-domiciled company here as of right disappeared with Brussels I Recast in a puff of celebratory Brexit firework smoke at 2300 hours on 31 December last. It follows that, barring swift adherence by the UK to the Lugano convention (increasingly unlikely by all the indications), any future claimant basing their complaint on events in a far-off land with no ostensible connection to England will now also face the prospect of a forum non conveniens application. This may well have an appreciable chance of success. There is, after all, no immediately apparent reason why the English courts should act as the policemen of work practices worldwide, hoewever much sympathy we may feel for a claimant personally.

In short, the boardrooms of corporate Britain, and even more those of their liability insurers, may well see some sighs of relief, if not discreet socially-distant celebrations, in the next few days.

The Third Group of Amendments to the Maritime Labour Convention 2006 Enters into force Later this Month

Later this month, the third group of amendments to the Maritime Labour Convention 2006 will be entering into force (26 December 2020). While these amendments have been discussed in a previous post on this blog https://iistl.blog/2020/06/10/singapore-passes-legislation-to-give-effect-to-the-third-group-of-amendments-to-the-maritime-labour-convention-2006/ , it may be worth reminding that they relate to Standard A 2.1, Standard A 2.2 and Regulation 2.5 of the Convention. The amendments ensure that a seafarer’s employment agreement (SEA) shall continue to have effect, wages and other contractual benefits under the SEA, relevant collective bargaining agreements or applicable national laws shall continue to be paid and the seafarers’ right to be repatriated shall not lapse for as long as a seafarer is held hostage on board a ship or ashore by pirates and armed robbers.

Singapore Passes Legislation to Give Effect to the Third Group of Amendments to the Maritime Labour Convention 2006

On 5 June 2018, the International Labour Conference (ILC) at its 107th Session approved the third group of amendments to the Maritime Labour Convention 2006. The amendments were agreed by the Special Tripartite Committee on 27 April 2018 at its third meeting at the International Labour Organisation (ILO) headquarters in Geneva. The agreed amendments were the result of the work undertaken by the ILO, in view of the Resolution adopted by the ILC at its 94th (Maritime ) Session concerning the effects of maritime piracy on the shipping industry, and concern Regulations 2.1, 2.2, and 2.5 of the Convention which deal with the seafarers’ employment agreement (SEA), the seafarers’ right to be paid wages, and the seafarers’ right to be repatriated, respectively.

In particular, the amendments stipulate that a new paragraph will be inserted to Standard A 2.1. ensuring that a SEA shall continue to have effect while a seafarer is held hostage on board a ship or ashore by pirates or armed robbers. The term ‘piracy’ is given the same meaning as in the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea 1982 (UNCLOS). Armed robbery against ships is defined as ‘any illegal act of violence or detention or any act of depredation, or threat thereof, other than an act of piracy, committed for private ends and directed against a ship or against persons or property on board such a ship, within a State’s internal waters, archipelagic waters and territorial sea, or any act of inciting or of intentionally facilitating an act described above’.

Furthermore, a new paragraph will be inserted to Standard A 2.2. stating that, where a seafarer is held hostage on board a ship or ashore by pirates or armed robbers, wages and other contractual benefits under the SEA, relevant collective bargaining agreements or applicable national laws, shall continue to be paid during the whole period of captivity and until the seafarer is released and duly repatriated or, where the seafarer dies while in captivity until the date of death as determined in accordance with national laws or regulations.

Finally, in Regulation 2.5, paragraph 8 will be replaced to ensure that the seafarers’ right to be repatriated shall not lapse where a seafarer is held hostage on board a ship or ashore by pirates and armed robbers. The terms piracy and armed robbery against ships shall have the same meaning as in Standard A2.1.

According to the process to be followed for the amendment of the Maritime Labour Convention 2006 under Article XIV of the Convention, the agreed amendments have now been notified to all Member States whose ratification of the Convention was registered before the date of the 107th Session of the ILC. The Member States will have two years from that notification to express a formal disagreement to the agreed amendments. Unless more than 40 per cent of ratifying Member States, representing not less than 40 per cent of the world gross tonnage, have formally expressed their disagreement with the amendments, they will enter into force six months after the end of the two years. Since no formal disagreements have been expressed, the expected date for entry into force is 26 December 2020.

Singapore is one of the very first States to pass legislation to enable domestic law to give effect to the third group of amendments to the Maritime Labour Convention 2006. On 25 March 2020, the Singapore Parliament passed a Bill to amend the Merchant Shipping (Maritime Labour Convention) Act 2014, which will take the force of law later this year. The Bill focuses on two points. First, it makes any necessary amendments to Singapore law to enhance the employment protection for captive seafarers. Secondly, it provides insurers with a statutory right to become subrogated to seafarers’ rights where, under a contract of insurance or other financial security, an insurer has paid for liabilities arising from a shipowner’s obligation to repatriate a seafarer.

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.

EU COMMISSION URGES MEMBER STATES TO DESIGNATE PORTS WHERE CREW CHANGES ARE FACILITATED DURING COVID-19 PANDEMIC

In response to the IMO recommendations for governments and relevant national authorities on the facilitation of crew changes and repatriations during the COVID-19 pandemic, the European Commission has now taken steps to facilitate and coordinate the efforts of Member States to enable crew changes in their ports.  

On guidelines published 8 April 2020, the European Commission urges Member States to designate ports for fast-track crew changes. The ports should be geographically dispersed so as to cover the Union and should be connected to operational airports and rail stations.

Given that transport connections are now heavily affected, the European Commission further urges Member States to envisage the possibility of dedicated flights and rail operations to ensure the transport connections for crew changes, allowing for swift travel and repatriations of seafarers.

Regarding the characteristics of these designated ports, the European Commission highlights that they should have nearby accommodation where seafarers could wait for arrival of the ship they should board or for their flight, train or ship if it does not leave on the same day. This accommodation should have adequate facilities to allow seafarers to undergo 14 days of quarantine before embarking and after disembarking if the Member State at hand requires this to protect public health. Finally, the ports should have accessible and adequate medical services available to seafarers when they embark, disembark and during their quarantine periods.

The European Commission clarifies here that seafarers who are nationals of third countries should also have access to adequate medical care and accommodation until their repatriation becomes possible. However, Member States may be entitled to request compensation from the shipowner. In this respect, the provisions of the Maritime Labour Convention, 2006, apply to ensure that accommodation and medical care should, in principle, be provided at no cost to seafarers.

The European Commission has also commented on the practice of extending the usual 11 months duration of a SEA stating that this should be the last resort, if repatriation is not possible. This is essential to ensure that fatigue does not detrimentally affect the mental health of seafarers and maritime safety.

As a final note, the European Commission stresses the need for the practice of designating ports where crew changes can take place safely during the COVID-19 pandemic to be shared with third countries to be implemented worldwide.

THE IMO CIRCULATES PRELIMINARY LIST OF RECOMMENDATIONS FOR GOVERNMENTS AND RELEVANT NATIONAL AUTHORITIES ON THE FACILITATION OF CREW CHANGES AND REPATRIATIONS DURING THE COVID-19 PANDEMIC

The COVID-19 pandemic is a global public health crisis, which places unprecedented restraints to the movement of seafarers for the purposes of crew changes and repatriations. In a circular letter issued on the 27th of March 2020, the IMO has distributed a preliminary list of recommendations for governments and relevant national authorities on the facilitation of crew changes and repatriations during the COVID-19 pandemic. Amongst other things, the IMO specifically urges governments to:

  • designate seafarers, regardless of nationality, as ‘key workers’ providing an essential service;
  • grant seafarers with any necessary and appropriate exemptions from national travel or movement restrictions in order to facilitate their joining or leaving ships;
  • accept, inter alia, official seafarers’ identity documents, discharge books, STCW certificates, seafarer employment agreements and letters of appointment from the maritime employer, as evidence of being a seafarer, where necessary, for the purposes of crew changes;
  • permit seafarers to disembark ships in port and transit through their territory (i.e. to an airport) for the purposes of crew changes and repatriation;
  • implement appropriate approval and screening protocols for seafarers seeking to disembark ships for the purposes of crew changes and repatriation; and
  • provide information to ships and crews on basic protective measures against COVID-19 based on World Health Organisation advice.

While these preliminary recommendations point towards the right direction, still there is a lot that needs to be considered. As recognised ‘key workers’, seafarers will be able to travel to and from a vessel, provided they carry at all times their professional documentation. However, seafarers, who sign off their ships at foreign ports, might not be able to be repatriated, despite their ‘key workers’ status. That is because many countries have now closed their international borders, and so commercial flights have been cancelled until further notice. In these circumstances, it will be up to the seafarers’ country of residency to take appropriate measures for their repatriation.

Furthermore, many countries have now adopted mandatory measures requiring people to self-isolate before they enter their territory depending on whether they had recently visited an affected country. Seafarers will have to adhere to these mandatory measures, irrespective of their ‘key workers’ status. That raises the question as to who should bear the cost for any expenses incurred by seafarers during self-isolation. According to regulation 2.5 of the MLC, 2006, shipowners should cover the costs of repatriation (i.e. travel expenses, food, clothing, accommodation, medical treatment etc) until seafarers are landed at the place of return (i.e. the agreed place under the SEA, the place at which seafarers entered into the SEA or the seafarers’ country of residency). Thus, seafarers who have to self-isolate awaiting repatriation at a foreign country should not bear any costs. It is, however, likely that seafarers who have to self-isolate at the place of return will have to bear the cost for any additional expenses.

Given these complexities, many shipowners now prefer to extend the SEAs instead of signing-off and repatriating crewmembers. However, this cannot be done without the consent of seafarers, unless, of course, the SEAs include a clause to that effect. In any case, any decisions as to the extension of the SEAs should not be taken lightly and should not prejudice the seafarers’ mental health and wellbeing.