Rhesa Shipping Co SA v Edmonds (The Popi M): HL 16 May 1985

The Popi M sank in calm seas and fair weather as a result of a large and sudden entry of water into her engine room through her shell plating. The vessel’s owners claimed against her hull and machinery underwriters, contending that the loss was caused by a peril of the sea or alternatively by crew negligence. The suggested peril of the sea was a moving submerged object, i.e. a submarine. The underwriters contended that the vessel was not seaworthy. More specifically, the underwriters advanced a mechanism for unseaworthiness through wear and tear, based on expert metallurgical evidence. The judge rejected that theory. He also rejected the owners’ argument that there had been crew negligence. That left the possibilities that the vessel was in some other way unseaworthy or that it collided with a submarine. There was no clear basis upon for the court to say that burden of proof had been discharged.
Held: The burden of proving this, on a balance of probabilities, lay on the plaintiffs. A trial judge is not bound to accept the evidence of one side or the other: there remains the possibility of deciding the case on the burden of proof. The court should avoid deciding cases on a balance of improbabilities. It was not possible to proceed on the basis of eliminating the impossible and deciding that the remaining explanation, however improbable, must be the cause, unless all the relevant facts were known; that state of affairs did not exist, as the ship had sunk in deep water. The concept of proof on a balance of probabilities had to be applied with common sense. It required a judge, before he found a particular event occurred, to be satisfied on the evidence that it was more likely to have occurred than not.
(1) where the cause of a past event is in issue and two or more competing causes are advanced the burden of proving his case on causation remains on the claimant throughout, and though the defendant can advance a competing cause there is no obligation on him to prove this case.
(2) Even after a prolonged enquiry with a mass of expert evidence, it is open to the courts to conclude that causation remains in doubt and the result will be that the claimant has failed to discharge the burden of proof.
(3) Therefore the effect of this decision is that where the court considers one theory as improbable but also rules out all other theories the court should not treat the improbable theory as the likely cause of the event.
Lord Brandon of Oakbrook said: ‘the appeal does not raise any question of law, except possibly the question what is meant by proof of a case ‘on a balance of probabilities’. Nor do underwriters challenge . . any of the primary findings of fact made by Bingham J. The question, and the sole question, which your Lordships have to decide is whether on the basis of those primary findings of fact, Bingham J and the Court of Appeal were justified in drawing the inference that the ship was, on the balance of probabilities, lost by perils of the sea.
In approaching this question it is important that two matters should be borne constantly in mind. The first matter is that the burden of proving, on a balance of probabilities, that the ship was lost by perils of the seas is and remains throughout on the shipowners. Although it is open to the underwriters to suggest and seek to prove some other cause of loss, against which the ship was not insured, there is no obligation on them to do so. Moreover, if they chose to do so, there is no obligation on them to prove, even on a balance of probabilities, the truth of their alternative case.
The second matter is that it is always open to a court, even after the kind of prolonged inquiry with a mass of expert evidence which took place in this case, to conclude, at the end of the day, that the proximate cause of the ship’s loss, even on a balance of probabilities, remains in doubt, with the consequence that the shipowners have failed to discharge the burden of proof which lay on them.’
As to the Sherlock Holmes fallacy that ‘once you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, is the truth ‘: ‘In my view there are three reasons why it is inappropriate to apply the dictum of Mr. Sherlock Holmes, to which I have just referred, to the process of fact-finding which a Judge of first instance has to perform at the conclusion of a case of the kind here concerned.
The first reason is one which I have already sought to emphasize as being of great importance, namely, that the Judge is not bound always to make a finding one way or the other with regard to the facts averred by the parties. He has open to him the third alternative of saying that the party on whom the burden of proof lies in relation to any averment made by him has failed to discharge that burden. No judge likes to decide cases on burden of proof if he can legitimately avoid having to do so. There are cases, however, in which, owing to the unsatisfactory state of the evidence or otherwise, deciding on the burden of proof is the only just course for him to take.
The second reason is that the dictum can only apply when all relevant facts are known, so that all possible explanations, except a single extremely improbable one, can properly be eliminated.
The third reason is that the legal concept of proof of a case on a balance of probabilities must be applied with common sense. It requires a judge of first instance, before he finds that a particular event occurred, to be satisfied on the evidence that it is more likely to have occurred than not. If such a Judge concludes, on a whole series of cogent grounds, that the occurrence of an event is extremely improbable, a finding by him that it is nevertheless more likely to have occurred than not, does not accord with common sense. This is especially so when it is open to the Judge to say simply that the evidence leaves him in doubt whether the event occurred or not, and that the party on whom the burden of proving that the event occurred lies has therefore failed to discharge such burden.

In my opinion Bingham J adopted an erroneous approach to this case by regarding himself as compelled to choose between two theories, both of which he regarded as extremely improbable, or one of which he regarded as extremely improbable and the other of which he regarded as virtually impossible. He should have borne in mind, and considered carefully in his judgment, the third alternative which was open to him, namely, that the evidence left him in doubt as to the cause of the aperture in the ship’s hull, and that, in these circumstances, the shipowners had failed to discharge the burden of proof which was on them.’

Lord Brandon of Oakbrook
[1985] 2 All ER 712, [1985] 1 WLR 948, [1985] 2 Lloyds Rep 1, [1985] UKHL 15
England and Wales
At First InstanceThe Popi M; Rhesa Shipping Co SA v Edmonds 1983
The parties disputed the cause of the loss of a ship. The experts suggested different but improbably explanations; each supported as the most likely explanation only because any other hypothesis was regarded as almost (if not altogether) impossible. . .
ApprovedLa Compania Martiartu v Royal Exchange Assurance Corporation CA 1923
The court found, on limited evidence, that the ship in respect of which her owners had claimed for a total loss of perils by sea, had in fact been scuttled with the connivance of those owners.
Scrutton LJ said: ‘This view renders it . .

Cited by:
CitedGibbs and others v Rea PC 29-Jan-1998
(Cayman Islands) The respondent worked for a bank. He disclosed a business interest, but that interest grew in importance to the point where he resigned in circumstances amounting to constructive dismissal. His home and business officers were raided . .
CitedMoiz Ahmed Siddiqui, Ishrat Siddiqui/Bhajan Singh Sohanpal v Council of the London Borough of Hillingdon TCC 15-Apr-2003
The claimants sought damages for cracks in their house caused by the roots of trees on the defendant’s land.
Held: The claimants had failed to establish by evidence that the tree roots were the cause of the damage. The claim failed. . .
CitedUCB Group Ltd v Hedworth CA 4-Dec-2003
The defendant challenged the claimant’s right to possession under a legal charge. She appealed a finding that she had not established the undue influence of her husband, a solicitor.
Held: A lender who received a voidable security was entitled . .
CitedExel Logistics Ltd v Curran and others CA 30-Sep-2004
The claimants sought damages for personal injuries after a crash in a Land Rover maintained by the defendants. The defendants appealed findings of negligence in failing properly to inflate the rear tyres, in continuing despite the danger, and poor . .
CitedStephens and Another v Cannon and Another CA 14-Mar-2005
The claimants had purchased land from the defendants. The contract was conditional on a development which did not take place. The master had been presented with very different valuations of the property.
Held: The master was not entitled to . .
CitedFlannery and Another v Halifax Estate Agencies Ltd, Trading As Colleys Professional Services CA 18-Feb-1999
A judge at first instance taking a view on an expert’s report should give reasons in his judgment for that view. On appeal, where no reasons had been given, he should be asked to provide reasons by affidavit for the appeal. An inadequately reasoned . .
CitedMcTear v Imperial Tobacco Ltd OHCS 31-May-2005
The pursuer sought damages after her husband’s death from lung cancer. She said that the defenders were negligent in having continued to sell him cigarettes knowing that they would cause this.
Held: The action failed. The plaintiff had not . .
CitedCarisbrooke Shipping Cv5 v Bird Port Ltd ComC 13-Sep-2005
. .
CitedUltraframe (UK) Ltd v Fielding and others ChD 27-Jul-2005
The parties had engaged in a bitter 95 day trial in which allegations of forgery, theft, false accounting, blackmail and arson. A company owning patents and other rights had become insolvent, and the real concern was the destination and ownership of . .
CitedKastor Navigation Co Ltd and Another v AGF M A T and others (‘Kastor Too’) ComC 4-Dec-2002
The claimant ship owner and its mortgagee sued the defendant insurer after the loss of the insured vessel, through fire. The insurers replied that the damage by fire was so extensive that the vessel was beyond repair when she sank, and was therefore . .
CitedHill Street Services Company Ltd v National Westminster Bank Plc and Burjor Mistry ChD 19-Oct-2007
The claimant company said that the bank had allowed money to be removed from its account without authority. Originally it said the second defendant, its former director had authrised the payments. On the second defendant denying this, the company . .
ExplainedIde v ATB Sales Ltd and Another CA 28-Apr-2008
Each appellant challenged how the judge had decided between alternative proofs of causation of the respective loss. In Ide, the claimant asserted a fault in a cycle handlebar, and in Lexus, the claimant asserted that it caught fire whilst . .
CitedFosse Motor Engineers Ltd and others v Conde Nast and National Magazine Distributors Ltd and Another TCC 20-Aug-2008
The claimant said that the defendant’s employees had negligently started a fire which burned down the claimant’s warehouse. There was limited evidence to establish the cause.
Held: The claim failed. The scientific evidence did not point to any . .
CitedPiper v Hales QBD 18-Jan-2013
The claimant owned a very vauable vintage Porsche racing car. It was hired to the defendant. The car suffered severe mechanical damage whilst being driven, and the insurers declined liability.
Held: The Defendant as hirer was under an . .
CitedNulty and Others v Milton Keynes Borough Council CA 24-Jan-2013
There had been two fires at a depot owned by the claimants. The fires were found to have been likely to have been caused by the deceased employee. His insurers had repudiated liability saying that the had not been notified oin a timely fashion.
CitedMilton Keynes Borough Council v Nulty and Others TCC 3-Nov-2011
There had been two fires at depots owned by the claimants. They brought proceedings against an employee, but his insurers repudiated liability saying that they had not been promptly notfied of the claim.
Held: The first fire was caused either . .
CitedLove v Halfords Ltd QBD 8-Apr-2014
The claimant had purchased a new bicycle from the defendants who also maintained it. Several months later, the steerer tube broke causing an accident and severe injury. The cycle had been finally assembled by the defendant after importation, but . .
CitedThe Worshipful Company of Grocers v Keltbray Group Holdings Ltd and Another QBD 19-May-2016
Allegation that a collapse in a nearby building caused a water leak in the claimant’s nearby building.
Held: the effects of the collapse did not cause the major cracking at Grocers’ Hall which was reported on following the flood. The Grocers . .

Lists of cited by and citing cases may be incomplete.

Evidence, Damages, Insurance, Evidence

Leading Case

Updated: 02 November 2021; Ref: scu.184697