Which ship is responsible for a collision?

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Court of Appeal ruling on International Collision Regulations

Appeals against decisions of the Admiralty Court in collision cases are rare, and the recent Court of Appeal judgment in the case of the Alexandra 1 and Ever Smart was the first such case since 2004. This arose out of a collision between a container ship and a VLCC in 2015 just outside the entrance channel to Jebel Ali in the United Arab Emirates, causing major damage to both vessels. The outbound vessel (ES) had just dropped the pilot, who was then going to board the inbound vessel (A1) at the usual pilot boarding area just outside the entrance channel. A1 was not anchored but was approaching the channel at slow speed whilst waiting for the pilot to board when the collision occurred. The Admiralty judge held that ES should bear 80% of the liability for the collision, and her owners appealed against this decision.

The main issue was whether or not the situation was governed by rule 15 of the Collision Regulations, the so-called crossing rule. ES argued that the crossing rule applied and that ES was therefore entitled to maintain her course and speed whilst A1, as the crossing vessel, had a duty to keep out of the way. The judge had rejected this argument on the basis that there would be conflict and confusion if rule 15 applied at the same time as rule 9, which requires a vessel navigating in a narrow channel (as ES was in this case) to keep to her own starboard side of the channel as far as is safe and practicable. In the appeal, ES challenged this and maintained that there was no reason why both rules could not have been applied. The Court of Appeal reviewed the judge’s reasoning and relevant previous judgments and concluded that the judge was correct. The Collision Regulations were practical rules designed to prevent collisions at sea.

In the situation that arose in this case, it was not necessary to apply the crossing rule to secure safe navigation – in fact it could fairly be said that it was necessary not to apply it, so as to avoid the additional risk of different actions being required at the same time. The Court also agreed with the judge (although it was not strictly necessary to decide the point) that even if the crossing rule applied in principle it could only apply where both vessels were following sufficiently defined courses at the time. In this case the judge had found that A1 was following a variable course because she was moving very slowly whilst waiting to embark the pilot, and the two vessels could not be said to be on converging courses.

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