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Safe berth clauses - is charterer's duty absolute?

Safe berth clause in voyage charters – an express warranty of safety by the charterer? SCOTUS had to resolve this in The Athos I [2020].

Vessel was time chartered, and then sub chartered on ASBATANKVOY to carry oil from Venezuela to New Jersey. Her hull was punctured by an abandoned ship anchor in the Delaware river causing a big spill. Owner and US Govt’s oil spill fund covered the clean-up costs, totaling $133m. They then looked towards the voyage charterer for recovery for breach of safe berth cl. District ct held against owners & Appeals court reversed it. Now it was in the Supreme Ct. primarily because of the conflicting precedents set by the circuit courts - 2nd and 3rd circ. construed it as a warranty whereas 5th cir. did not.

As per SCOTUS, charterer’s duty was absolute given the unqualified language of the cl. Absence of the word ‘warranty’ in the cl. did not alter charterer’s duty. A win for the head owner, who ended up being a 3rd party beneficiary inspite of not being a party to the sub voy charter. Dissenting minority said that such a duty should stay with Master.

This brings US law on this subject in line with Eng. law. Result would have been different if for eg. INTERTANKVOY or BPVOY5 was used. There is after all complete freedom of contract!

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