Princess Victoria Disaster

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Mar 3, 2010
This is a direct quote from the textbook produced by Professor Ed Gold, Faculty of Law, at Dalhousie University, Halifax, N.S.

Recent Developments in Limitation of Liability:

An important rule, which sets shipping apart from all other branches of industry and commerce, is the rule that a shipowner can limit his liability to persons suffering loss or damage through the negligent navigation of his ship. This rule dates back to the 17th Century, originating in the Netherlands partly from the writings of the great legal scholar, Grotius. Essentially it was a public policy decision and was probably one of the first examples of state support for shipping. Broadly stated, the rule is that the owner of a negligent ship need not necessarily compensate fully those who have suffered as a result of a ship colliding with and damaging another vessel or causing loss of life or personal injury to passengers or other personnel. Usually the shipowner can limit his liability according to the size of the ship. This rule is now embodied in an international convention.

In order to limit his liability, the the shipowner must show that the operators negligence occurred without his "fault or privity". Until recently, parties attempting to show fault or privity on the part of the shipowner faced an almost impossible task. The tragic case of the "Princess Victoria"[1953] 2 Lloyd's Rep. 619, illustrates the point. In this case the Master refused to sail an unseaworthy ship. The shipowner told the Master that he would be fired unless he sailed. The ship sailed and sank in bad weather and 133 people lost their lives. Regardless of this, the shipowner was still able to limit his liability. Needless to say, this case aroused much ire and changed sentiments against shipowners.

Northern Ireland Ulster High Court

Sept 29, 30, Oct 1,2, 5, 6,7,8,9 12,13, 1953.

The "Princess Victoria"

Re: The Merchant Shipping Act 1894-1923

Court of Inquiry

Before Lord Justice Dermott, sitting with Professor L.C. Burrill, Captain P.S.Robinson and Mr John Wallace, Nautical Assessors.

Findings of Court of Inquiry that loss was due to her unseaworthiness which resulted from the inadequacy of her stern doors and freeing ports on the car deck, and that the loss was caused by the default of the owners and managers

(a) In that they failed to provide stern doors sufficiently strong to withstand the onslaught of the heavy seas which may be reasonably expected to occur in the North Channel.

(b) In that they failed to provide adequate freeing arrangements for seas which might enter the car space from any source.

(c) In failing to take precautionary steps after the incident of November, 1951.

(d) In failing to comply with the provisions of Sect. 425 of the Merchant Shipping Act, 1894 in so far as they did not report the incident mentioned in (c) above.

Appeal by Owners and Managers against Findings -Evidence of weather conditions-Whether exceptional-Cause of loss-Matters affecting seaworthiness-Shifting of cargo stowed in car space-Meaning of "wrongful act or default" - Alleged breach by the owners of their common law and/or statutory duty-Design in part experimental, suitability not having been established at commencement of service-Continuing duty on owners to provide seaworthy ship-Evidence of incidents which occurred during voyages in 1949 and 1951 which should have put owners and managers on inquiry as to vulnerability of stern doors and adequacy of freeing ports.- Whether knowledge acquired by manager R. justified a finding of default against him.

HELD, upholding findings of of Court of Inquiry that the weather, though severe, was not so phenomenal or abnormal as not reasonably to have been foreseen; that the loss was due to the inadequacy of the stern doors and of the freeing ports, and was contributed to by the shifting of cargo stowed on the car deck; that 'Princess Victoria' was in consequence unseaworthy in that, by reason of her defects, she was unable to cope with sea perils which should reasonable have been anticipated; that her owners, though not in default at the commencement of her service by reason of the unsuitability of her design,were, in view of knowledge subsequently acquired of defects which manifested themselves during her service., guilty of " wrongful act or default" in failing to take steps to remedy such defects, and were in breach of their common law duty to provide a seaworthy ship; further, that the facts justified a finding of default against manager P.; but (varying the findings of Court of Inquiry) that neither the owners nor the managers were in breach of their statutory duty either under the Load Line Rules, 1941, or under sec 425 of the Merchant Shipping Act, 1894, and that the facts did not justify a finding of default against manager R.

More recent cases, such as The Farrandoc (1967) demonstrate the change in the court's attitude in favour of finding fault and privity on the part of shipowners. In collision cases, it was considered virtually axiomatic, until the case of the Lady Gwendoline (1965), that if a collision arose out of navigational error on the part of the Master or crew, limitation of liability would be granted.. Since this case , however, many English cases, such as The England (1973), Kathy K(1976) have followed the trend against limitation of liability.

You can see from the above that the master did not choose to sail, but was forced to by the owners. by threats to his livelihood and profession, and therefore his reputation and integrity.

I think also that although laymen may think that the owners were found at fault, this is nothing to a businessman. It was obvious that the accident occurred with their fault and privity, privity in this case meaning they were privy to the defects that caused the loss, and did nothing about it. In reality they got away with it because they were able to limit liability, without which they would be liable for a vast amount of money with all that loss of life.

A modern textbook now reflects these sentiments. e.g.,

"In the United Kingdom and the other countries that have ratified the Brussels limitation of liability convention of 1957 or enacted domestic legislation embracing its terms, the limit is £28, or its equivalent, multiplied by the adjusted net tonnage of the vessel, regardless of its actual value. The basic condition of the privilege is that the party asserting it must be free from “privity or knowledge,” in the words of the United States statute, or “actual fault or privity,” in the words of the convention. This formula means, generally speaking, that the shipowner is entitled to limit his liability for the negligence of the master or crew, but not for his own personal negligence or that of his managerial personnel." The registered tonnage of the "Princess Victoria" was 758 tons.

Before "The Lady Gwendoline" in 1965 the shipowner could rely on limiting his liability, regardless of the fact that the accident occurred with his fault and privity. This was a licence to send unseaworthy ships to sea.
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