31. Bristol City Line of Steamships v (The “John Ena”) [1921] 6 LI.L.Rep 401; [1921] 8 Ll.L Rep 294

Fault or privity – owners failing to properly equip vessel – unable to discharge onus

The facts

An unfinished vessel was sent under tow to another shipyard to have its engines fitted. With the owners’ knowledge the anchor cable supplied to the vessel was too short for normal usage.

On the way back the tow rope to the single tug broke. Because the anchor cable was too short to allow the anchor strike bottom, the vessel drifted out of control and collided with another vessel.

The owners sought to limit their liability for which they had to show an absence of fault or privity.

They argued that the proximate causes of the collision were the unforeseen and fortuitous absence of a second tug and sudden bad weather.

Findings

Both the Admiralty Court (Sir Henry Duke) and the Court of Appeal (Lord Sterndale, Justice Atkin and Lord Justice Younger) – both courts sitting with nautical assessors – found that the failure to provide a properly working anchor defeated the claim for limitation.

Commentary

The judgments in both courts contain a sound analysis of the facts. With multiple causes contributing to the collision, the owners were not able to evade their responsibility by pointing to the causes which were outside of their control ie. the bad weather and the fortuitous absence of a second tug.

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