Seabord Offshore Ltd v Secretary of State for Transport (The Safe Carrier): HL 25 Mar 1994

The House was asked whether a ship manager was legally responsible for the acts of the ship’s chief engineer under s31(1) of the Merchant Shipping Act 1988, which imposed a duty on the manager to take all reasonable steps to secure that the ship was operated in a safe manner. The prosecution had failed because the case had not been presented at trial before the Justices in a manner which enabled them to consider whether the manager had failed to take all reasonable steps. It was too late to argue on appeal that there had been a failure to establish adequate systems for securing that the ship did not go to sea before the chief engineer had sufficient opportunity to familiarise himself with its machinery and equipment.
Held: The Act does not impose vicarious liability on the owners of ships for the omissions of their reasonably and properly instructed agents or employees.
Lord Keith of Kinkel showed his distaste for the imposition of absolute liability: ‘It would be surprising if by the language used in section 31 [of the Merchant Shipping Act 1988] Parliament had intended that the owner of a ship should be criminally liable for any act or omission by any officer of the crew or member of the crew which resulted in unsafe operation of the ship, ranging from a failure by the managing director to arrange repairs to a failure by the bosun or cabin steward to close portholes.’
References: Independent 24-Mar-1994, Gazette 11-May-1994, Times 25-Mar-1994, [1994] 2 All ER 99, [1994] 1 WLR 541
Judges: Lord Keith of Kinkel
Statutes: Merchant Shipping Act 1988 31
Jurisdiction: England and Wales
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Last Update: 22 September 2020; Ref: scu.89078