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Singapore High Court apportions liability in two related collisions

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The “Tian E Zuo” [2018] SGHC 93 

This is a decision of the Singapore High Court on the apportionment of liability for two related collisions that took place on 12 June 2014 at Western Petroleum Anchorage B in Singapore. Both the Arctic Bridge and the Tian E Zuo had each collided with the Stena Provence. In a settlement with the Stena Provence, both the Arctic Bridge and the Tian E Zuo assumed equal responsibility for the damage sustained by the Stena Provence. However, both the Arctic Bridge and the Tian E Zuo sought to be indemnified by the other on the basis that the other was wholly to blame for the collisions with the Stena Provence.

The background facts

Just prior to the collisions with the Stena Provence, the Tian E Zuo was involved in another three-vessel collision after dragging her port anchor. The Tian E Zuo subsequently dropped her starboard anchor, but the three vessels continued to drift towards the Arctic Bridge, which was also at anchor, before finally coming to a stop. As a result of this earlier collision, these three vessels were prevented from moving apart.

Having observed this development, the Arctic Bridge readied her engines and started heaving anchor. VTIS West Control of the Singapore MPA subsequently requested the Arctic Bridge to shift to a new location so that the Tian E Zuo would have room to set herself free. The Arctic Bridge informed West Control that she was confident that she could shift to another location on her own, and made preparations to do so. By this time, the Arctic Bridge was already manoeuvring at dead slow ahead with three shackles of anchor cable in the water.

During the course of the shift, the Arctic Bridge crossed the bow of the Tian E Zuo twice, entangling the anchor chains of both vessels. This resulted in the Tian E Zuo being towed by the Arctic Bridge for about 20 minutes.

The bow of the Tian E Zuo subsequently collided with the port quarter of the Stena Provence. This impact caused the bow of the Stena Provence to turn to port towards the Arctic Bridge and, subsequently, the port bow of the Stena Provence made contact with the Arctic Bridge.  As the Arctic Bridge was still moving forward and towing the Tian E Zuo, this caused a second collision between the Tian E Zuo and the Stena Provence.

The Singapore High Court decision

The Appointment of Liability

Numerous faults were alleged by the two vessels against each other. After considering the evidence and the parties’ submissions, the Court held that although there were numerous faults found on the part of both vessels, only the causative faults would be taken into account when apportioning liability for the collisions with the Stena Provence

As to the causative faults of the Arctic Bridge, the Court found the Arctic Bridge was negligent when she crossed the bow of the Tian E Zuo at an unsafe distance and thereafter proceeded full ahead in the direction of the Stena Provence without stopping and without keeping a good visual lookout and monitoring the progress of the Tian E Zuo at her stern. These faults resulted in the entangled anchors that caused the Arctic Bridge to drag the Tian E Zuo from her anchored position, and without fully appreciating the involuntary towage. Notwithstanding she had then herself collided with the Stena Provence, the Arctic Bridge continued to navigate full ahead, dragging the Tian E Zuo, and in so doing, the Arctic Bridge failed to take preventive action(s) that resulted in a second collision between the Tian E Zuo and the Stena Provence.

As to the causative faults of the Tian E Zuo, the Court held that although she was towed involuntarily by the Arctic Bridge, she was a vessel underway as she was no longer held by and under the control of her anchor. She was, therefore, obliged to keep clear of other anchored vessels. In taking advantage of the involuntary towage in a bid to disengage herself from the earlier collision, the Tian E Zuo failed to fully appreciate the proximity of the Stena Provenceand failed to keep a proper lookout. The delay by the Tian E Zuo in taking action to avert the collision with the Stena Provence was as causative as the Arctic Bridge dragging the Tian E Zuointo the Stena Provence. Additionally, the Court held that the Master lost control of the Tian E Zuo after her main engines were stopped when the Arctic Bridge continued to sail full ahead, and this was a breach of rule 5 of the COLREGS which was causatively potent of her second collision with the Stena Provence.

Taking all causative faults into consideration, the Court held that there were serious faults committed by both vessels and that, having regard to both relative blameworthiness and causative potency, both vessels were equally to blame. Therefore, a fair apportionment of liability would be 50:50.

Other issues

The following evidentiary points raised in the judgment are also worth highlighting.

First, the Tian E Zuo relied on a master mariner to give expert evidence on matters on seamanship. The Arctic Bridge submitted that little or no weight should be given to the Tian E Zuo’s expert as he was also involved in conducting casualty investigations on behalf of the Tian E Zuo. However, this argument was dismissed by the Court as the expert’s prior involvement was disclosed in his affidavit and, furthermore, no factual evidence was supplemented by this expert in his testimony.  It is, therefore, crucial for parties to disclose any prior involvement that their experts may have in the dispute.

Second, when considering secondary evidence based on information from the VDR on-board the various vessels, the Court repeated that this evidence merely showed what might have happened, and not what did happen. Parties should not, therefore, rely too much on such secondary evidence without primary evidence.

Comment

This decision demonstrates the importance of keeping a good lookout, especially in waters as congested as Singapore’s. Even dealing with the immediate aftermath of a collision is not sufficient reason to not maintain a good lookout.

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