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Web Alert: Nordlake v Seaeagle - demystifies the apportionment of liability in multi-ship collisions

03 March 2016

Back in October 2015 the English High Court was called to revisit the law on apportionment of liability in multi-ship collisions. Nordlake v Seaeagle[1] involved a collision between five ships. Three of the ships were owned by the Indian Navy and were not involved in the High Court proceedings, whilst the other two container ships brought claims against each other.

Background

  • On 30 January 2011, the claimant’s outbound ship Nordlake collided with the inbound Indian warship Vindhyagiri. Shortly before the collision, Nordlake had passed close to other two Indian warships the Godaviri and the Lead Warship and nearly collided with the Seaeagle.
  • On 23 February 2011 a claim was brought in the Indian courts by the Indian Navy against the owner of the Nordlake.
  • On 25 January 2013 the owner of Nordlake brought a claim against the owner of the Seaeagle in the English High Court alleging that the collision was caused by the negligence of both the Seaeagle and the other three Indian warships.
  • On 29 January 2013, the owner of the Seaeagle brought a claim against the owner of Nordlake alleging that the accident was caused by the negligence of both the Nordlake and the same three Indian warships.

Causation

It was held that Nordlake was guilty of three breaches of the Collision Regulations, namely: rule 9 (the narrow channel rule), rule 6 (safe speed) and rule 5 (look out). Vindhyagiri was guilty of two faults; poor lookout and an attempt to cross ahead of the Nordlake in the narrow channel. Both Godavari and Seaeagle were also found to be at fault which was causative of the collision. The Lead Warship was at fault, but it was not regarded as an effective cause of the collision.

Apportionment of liability

So, in a nutshell, it appeared that this collision was caused by the fault of four ships. The English High Court judge felt the need to consider the question left open in The Bovenkirk[2]. Namely, where one of the ships which is at fault is not before the court, can the court still take into account the degree to which that ship was at fault when apportioning liability?

The judge here found he could, because unless account was taken as to the degree in which the ships owned by the Indian Navy were at fault, the proportions to which Nordlake and Seaeagle were held liable would exceed their actual degree of fault. Ultimately, the Nordlake was held 60% responsible for the collision, Vindhyagiri 20% and Godavari and Seaeagle only 10% each.

Although the court apportioned some liability to the Indian warships, its decision was not binding on them as the Indian Navy was not a party to the High Court proceedings.

General considerations to be taken into account when assessing apportionment

Although the English judge recognised there was no ‘hard and fast’ rule on the apportionment of liability in collision cases, he placed particular emphasis on the following general principles:

  • It is the severity of a ship’s faults, rather than their number, that ultimately matter;
  •  Breach of collision regulations will usually be regarded as serious faults;
  • Usually it is more serious for a ship to create a situation of difficulty or danger than to fail to react to it;
  • A causative fault is defined as a fault that contributes to the collision. However, a fault can also be causative if, although it did not contribute to the collision, it did contribute to the damage/loss that arose out of it;
  • A fault consisting of a deliberate act may well be regarded as more serious than one consisting of omission only; and
  • There is no correct approach when dealing with questions of apportionment but the Court is encouraged to apply common-sense principles.

Conclusion

Nordlake v Seaeagle was a good opportunity for the English High Court to clarify the law on apportionment of liability in multi-ship collisions. It also appears clear that the court will consider the liabilities of ships that are not parties to the proceedings, when apportioning liability.

This article intends to provide general guidance on the issues arising. It is not intended to provide legal advice in relation to any specific query. The law is also not static. If in doubt, The Standard Club is always on hand to assist.

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[1] [2015] EWHC 3605
[2] [1973] 1 Lloyd’s Rep. 63