Safe port – port held unsafe – negligence of compulsory pilot not breaking chain of causation – charterers liable
The vessel was let on a time charter to trade between safe ports. During the course of the charter, the vessel was ordered to Port la Nouvelle on the Mediterranean to discharge gas oil. After discharge and while taking on ballast, it was decided to leave the port immediately to escape oncoming bad weather. In the process of leaving, the starboard anchor dragged and damaged an underwater pipeline.
The owners settled a claim for the damage which they sought to reclaim from the charterers. The claim was based on the unsafety of the port. Two further grounds were advanced on behalf of the owners, viz, breach of the express wording of the safe port clause and reliance on the employment and indemnity clause.
The charterers denied that the port was unsafe, alternatively, they claimed that the damage was caused by the negligence of the compulsory pilot for which they were not liable.
The arbitrator appointed by the parties, Christopher Staughton QC, held that the port was unsafe because it could only be departed from safely by employing an elevated level of skill and seamanship. Although there had been negligence on the part of the compulsory pilot, this did not break the chain of causation. He stated his award in the form of a special case for the decision of the Commercial Court.
The Commercial Court, Parker J, upheld the award.
Thomas QC appeared for the owners while Mustill QC appeared for the charterers.
The unsafety of the port was considered by the arbitrator to be a question of fact. Parker J held that it was a mixed question of fact and law. Legal principles had to be applied to the facts to reach the necessary conclusion.
The ratio of this case is a development of law, extending the circumstances under which a port could be considered unsafe.
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