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Aware of deficient bridge watchkeeping practices? Act or loose the right to limit liability (in US)

Many may recall the collision between U.S.S. John S. Mccain and Alnic in Singapore Straits. Liability was apportioned 80-20 in favour of Alnic last week by a US court. Bigger question for the Court was if Alnic’s owners could limit their liability to the value of the vessel and freight which was roughly $16m, instead of paying out $45m to the US Navy.

Alnic was 20% liable primarily for one reason, which was that the bridge was understaffed. The helmsman had his attention split between lookout and steering. As per the Court, more crew on the bridge would have allowed for better real-time observation of Mccain. Under US Limitation Act the onus is on the owner to prove it lacked privity or knowledge of negligence onboard the vessel and the key question is “not what owners actually knew, but what they objectively ought to have known”. The threshold is much lower than in LLMC 76.

For reasons mentioned below, the Court considered the inactions by the managers of Alnic to have set into motion a chain of circumstances which contributed to the collision and thus the right to limitation of the owners was denied.

  • A couple of months before the incident, one of their Superintendents noted during an inspection that the bridge was understaffed. Higher ups in the Management, including the Safety Manager and Crewing Manager were informed about the Supdt’s concerns about the crew's ability to navigate safely.

  • The Management had enough time to implement the Marine Superintendent's recommendation to send someone to conduct remedial training for the tanker's crew but did not and instead, as the court put it, allowed the vessel ‘to again travel through one of the busiest shipping lanes in the world’.

  • There were coverups by the crew and the management. Though this did not cause the collision, the court took this as an indication that Alnic’s crew and managers were aware of sub-standard practices onboard.

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