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Who is the ‘operator of the ship’ for purposes of LLMC'76?

Rooted in antiquity is limitation of liability, a distinctive feature of maritime law that allows certain persons or entities to limit their exposure to a maximum sum based on tonnage. One of them is the ‘operator of the ship’. Which all persons or entities does this phrase encompass? This was the question in The Stema Barge II [2020].

The dumb barge dragged its anchor in heavy wx and damaged an undersea cable which was supplying electricity from France to England. Damages sought by RTE were in excess of €50m. Under LLMC'76 the claim amount was limited to a maximum of £5.5m. The owner and the charterer (also an operator) could limit. The question was about Stema UK who provided personnel to operate the barge. RTE contended that operator person or entity which has direct responsibility for the management and control of the ship, and Stema UK did not fit the description.

The court disagreed. The word operator includes those who operate the ship in the sense of placing on board an unmanned ship, with the consent of the owner, personnel to operate her. Stema UK's personnel on the barge provided a service which no one else did and moreover it was involved in the decision making process wrg how to react during heavy wx making it an operator of the ship.

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