Master required: must have ability to see into the future


The views and opinions expressed here are solely those of the original author or contributor. These views and opinions do not necessarily represent those of the UK P&I Club.

"According to the Belgian Court of Appeal, it would seem that Masters of ships must also be Masters of the unknown - on top of all the other job requirements. Odd? Yes - we thought so, too.

A recent case involving a ship entered in the club involved a cargo of steel plates and coils loaded in China and discharged in the Belgium. Naturally, the ship's voyage involved sailing through different climates. This voyage took place in winter, so she sailed from a cold China, through the warm Singapore straights nearing the equator and then back up into a very cold Europe. This allegedly caused damage to the cargo, for which the receiver sought to recover damages. The owners were seeking to deny liability on the basis that it was not the fault of the ship.

Now, this is not an unusual situation, but the Belgian Court of Appeal clearly thought otherwise! They held that a receiver is relying on the description of the cargo provided by the Master when the goods are loaded. Excellent - that is the situation as we know it. It coincides with the obligations under the Hague-Visby Rules (to which the Netherlands are a signatory) and is not too onerous. So far, so good - but this is where it started to go wrong ...

The Court further held that the receiver is not supposed to have any knowledge regarding the carriage of steel. Anything to do with the transportation is, therefore, completely down to the owners / Master. As such, the Court said that the Master should have described the condition of the cargo taking into account the forthcoming voyage.

So in other words, the Master is expected to clause the bills of lading in accordance with any and every potential change in condition of the cargo caused by and during the voyage. In theory, by the time the damage is done and the cargo reaches the discharge port, it would comply correspond with the description given by the Master at the loading port.

There are so many questions!

  •  How is the Master supposed to predict the potential effects that the voyage will have on the cargo?

  • What happens if the Master over-estimates the expected effects of the voyage? The cargo would turn up in a better condition than when it was loaded!

  • What level of knowledge is the Master deemed to have about each and every cargo he is due to carry?

  • What happens to the poor shipper who has provided cargo in a good condition, then receives a clause bill for damage that hasn't even happened?

  • How does this decision interact with the obligations under the Hague-Visby Rules - which one prevails

  • Surely the receiver should know what they are buying, it's characteristics and where they are buying it from?

The owners may be appealing the decision, but if in doubt be sure to talk to the Club!"

Staff Author