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Explosive Cargo, Divided Blame: Who Pays When a Shipment Goes Up in Flames?

Who is liable when a dangerous cargo shipment explodes during the voyage, the carrier or the shipper? This question becomes particularly thorny when both contribute to the incident. Shipper fails to ensure the cargo is safe for carriage, while the carrier neglects to follow proper stowage and segregation requirements outlined in the IMDG Code. A recent case in the Netherlands involving an exploding shipment of ethylene gas in isotainers offers valuable insights into this complex issue.

 

Ethylene was being shipped from US to Angola. During discharge, the ethylene gas vented, forming an explosive cloud that ignited from a spark from the nearby reefers, causing significant damage to the vessel and cargo. IMDG Code required such sources of ignition to be at least 3 meters away, but in this case the reefers were less than a meter away.

 

The shipper argued that the carrier's improper stowage, violating the IMDG Code, allowed the spark to ignite the explosive atmosphere. The carrier (time charterer in this case) said that the explosion would still have occurred regardless of the reefers' placement. They further claimed the pressure build-up within the container went unnoticed because the shipper had instructed the crew not to monitor pressure levels during the voyage. Moreover, the shippers had decided to withhold shipment of one of the isotainers after it started venting on the quay during loading.

 

The Court acknowledged that the carrier did not adhere to the requirements of the IMDG Code, but that did not break the causal link. The explosion would still have occurred had the source of ignition (reefers) been stowed more than 3 meters away from the ethylene isotainers. They also took note of the fact that after the incident the shippers required much greater distance for all future shipments of ethylene gas.

 

Link to the judgements:

Court of Appeal (confirmed lower court's decision): https://uitspraken.rechtspraak.nl/details?id=ECLI:NL:GHDHA:2020:2945



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