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Error by crew / owner & Limitation of Liability in US

Sluggish response to engine orders can get a ship into trouble, especially when there is a strong current. In the case of The American Liberty [2021] it resulted in multiple allisions (with 3 ships at berth and a terminal) in the lower Mississippi river. Owners were now seeking to limit their liability, but the only problem was that they were aware of this technical issue but did not take corrective steps. Were they successful?

During the Master-pilot exchange, there was no discussion of how long it would take from one engine order to the next, and when the tugs would be released. The vessel unberthed and turned around in the river, following which the tugs were let go and engines put on dead slow ahead. The pilot then asked for slow ahead and expected to reach the desired RPMs in less than 15 sec but it took more than a minute. The current overtook her and she had multiple allisions. The pilot said had the issue with engine orders been known earlier, the tug would not have been let go so early.

As per the court, the crew demonstrated poor BRM, allowed the current to overcome the ship and failed to warn the pilot of the delay expected in increasing the RPMs. All this happened because the owners had not trained the crew in using the Kongsberg automatic engine system properly inspite of being on notice that vessels had experienced slow engine response times in the past, and the Master-Pilot checklist template in the SMS lacked the necessary details (it did not include information on engine response times or engine limitations).

The court also noted that USCG had infact published a bulletin months before the incident informing that there had been many instances where vessels could not achieve the ME revolutions as requested by the pilot and if there were any load limiting programmes then there should be a provision to override that.

For these reasons the owner was not successful in limiting its liability.

Worth pointing out that US is not a party to LLMC'76 (under which breaking the limitation is a tough task). The outcome of this case would probably have been different in a LLMC state.

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