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Consequences subsequent to a ship collision

—Capt. Ashwani Jhingan


The after-effects of a ship collision on marine and human life are immeasurable and have traumatic consequences. The ship involved in a collision suffers from heavy structural and stability damage. Apart from the damage to the ship, collision results in the following effects:


a) Loss of human life and serious injuries


b) Environmental impact due to oil spills


c) Financial losses to the local fraternity and communities


d) The owners of the ships having financial losses and penalty, distressed vessel, wreck, salvage, general average contributions, sacrifices and expenditures


e) Damage to the coastal or offshore infrastructure, viz. bridges, jetties, gantry cranes, etc.


f) Safety of navigation through channels and interference with the port operations


g) Cargo claims


As a matter of "substantive" law, collisions at sea may involve the application of the "law of negligence". Under the established neighbourhood principle, a ship owes a "duty of care" to other ships navigating the same seas. The case study of "Bacchus and the Neptune" explains five important consequences of a ship’s collision:


1. Application of the "law of negligence" for the collision and apportionment of the fault:


The party which claims for the damage should establish the existence of a "duty of care" owed to it, and that "duty has been breached" and "damage caused by that breach".


(a) The Duty of Care:


There is a "mutual duty of reasonable care" between "the Bacchus and the Neptune", since they navigated in the same sea. Both crews should have ‘reasonably foreseen’ that their actions would be likely to injure those they ‘ought reasonably to contemplate’ as being so affected (Donoghue v Stevenson).


(b) Breach of Duty:


It is a difficult "issue of law" to establish. The "defendant’s" conduct must have fallen below the "legal standard of care" that required him. In the general law of "negligence", the conduct of those navigating a ship involved in a collision is judged by the "standards of prudent seamanship".


In such cases, the shipowner is "vicariously liable" as the employer of the crew. The test as to whether there has been professional negligence is the standard of the "ordinary skilled man exercising and professing to have the relevant skills" (Bolam v Friern Hospital). The relevant standard is largely found in the COLREGs 1972.


(i) The Bacchus: In the present case, the Bacchus has the Neptune on her starboard, so the Bacchus is ‘give way’ vessel.


Therefore, she shall keep out of the way and shall, if the circumstances of the case admit, avoid crossing ahead of the other vessel-COLREGs, R.15. This violation is a continuing one, with no corrective action, thus the Bacchus also fails in her obligation to take positive action made in ample time, with due regard to the observance of good seamanship-R.8(a).


(ii) The Neptune: As a ‘stand on’ vessel, the Neptune’s duty is to keep her speed and course-R.17 (a) (i). However, according to R.17 (a) (ii), the Neptune was obliged to take action to avoid collision by her manoeuvre alone, as soon as it became apparent to her that the Bacchus was not taking appropriate action in compliance with these Rules.


Moreover, under R.17 (b), when the Neptune found herself so close that collision could not be avoided by the Bacchus alone, she shall take action as would best aid to avoid collision. Neptune should have taken a hard turn to port but just made a modest turn. This action was likely to be "below the standard of ordinary skilled men exercising and professing to have the skill of crew".


(ii) Conclusion on Breach of Duty: On the balance of probabilities- (The City of London), Apparently, Bacchus breached her duty in attempting to cross ahead of the Neptune while the Neptune was in breach in just making a modest turn which was not enough to avoid the collision.


(c) Damage Caused by the Breach of Duty


Even if the "claimant" establishes breach by the "defendant", it must still prove that the loss would not have occurred but for the breach (Barnett v Chelsea and Kensington HMC). Both vessels merely had to comply with the crossing rules, but for the Bacchus’s failing in this regard, the collision would not have happened, and so causation is established here.


(d) Apportionment


It is not that Neptune’s faults were so minor that she should attract only a "de minimis" share of the blame. There was a real fault, and decisive action under R. 17 (a) (ii) or inappropriate action under R.17 (b) would have avoided the collision. Therefore, a fair apportionment may be 80/20 in favour of the Neptune (The Topaz and Iraqua).


2. Salvage


(a) Sisyphus SA: Sisyphus SA signed an LOF2000 salvage contract with Neptune, with "SCOPIC" clause and offered salvage services. The subsequent explosion of the vessel resulted in producing a low value salved fund, which were only some cargo and the wreck value.


(b) Hesperides Salvors Inc.: The "Atlas", salvage tug owned by Hesperides Salvors Inc. assisted the Bacchus and also, LOF2000 was signed and SCOPIC incorporated and invoked. This salvage service is successful, so the value of the salved property is high.


3. General Average: The specific calculation is done by professional "G.A." adjustor according to York Antwerp Rules 1994. It was concluded that there is no G.A. issue arising for the Neptune; then the focus will be on the Bacchus.


4. Oil pollution


(a) The Neptune: This vessel was an oil tanker. The pollution was in Sicily, Italy. Italy was a party to the 1992 CLC, 1992 Fund and the Supplementary Fund (2003 Protocol). All the three tiers are available to the victims for the pollution.


(b) The Bacchus: This is not an oil tanker. The Bunkers Convention governs this kind of situation, which has only one compensation layer.


5. Limitation of liability


(a) The Neptune: "Pluto Inc", the "shipowner", the "Master, crew and other employees" of it can limit their liability. It is highly likely that as the carrier, it can exempt its liability under Hague/Hague-Visby Rules. As the vessel has already gone, it was stated that "Pluto Inc" might not build the limitation fund.


(b) The Bacchus: The "Jupiter AS" is as a "shipowner" and its "employees" can also limit their liability. The collision is "both to blame". Perhaps, the Bacchus might take main responsibility for the collision. Therefore, the other vessel will have a claim against it for the vessel destroyed and subsequent oil pollution compensation which the Neptune has to pay; also, the "cargo owner" of the Neptune might act a claim against it "in tort".


(Article compiled and contributed by Capt. Jhingan, Chairman and Managing Director of Malaxar. He is also an Advocate of Bombay High Court. Capt. Jhingan can be contacted at Views expressed here are his own.)


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