CMA CGM Libra & Unseaworthiness

What Happened?

The Court of Appeal upheld the decision of the Admiralty Judge in ‘The CMA CGM LIBRA’ in that a defective Passage Plan can render a vessel unseaworthy notwithstanding that the defect stemmed from navigational decisions. Any such error is attributable to the carrier or owner and constitutes a failure by the carrier or owner to exercise ‘due diligence’ before and at the commencement of the voyage to make the vessel seaworthy under the Hague/Hague-Visby Rules.

Food For Thought

Seaworthiness is not only a relative concept but an evolving one too which changes not only with the time of the year but over a period of time.

In McFadden v Blue Star Line incident where seaworthiness of a vessel was defined as a vessel that “must have a degree of fitness which an ordinary, careful and prudent owner would require his vessel to have at the commencement of her voyage, having regard to all the probable circumstances of it”

• Whether a vessel is unseaworthy or not will depend always not only on the standards prevailing at that time but also on the circumstances surrounding the voyage.

• The continuous advancement in shipbuilding, engine advancement, drastic betterment in navigational equipment being used on the navigational bridge all will have an effect on seaworthiness over a period of time.

However, the are some general conditions on which the vessels have been held to be unseaworthy which in turn shows that it is an all-encompassing concept.

• The physical condition of the vessel should be able to withstand the ordinary perils of the sea. Consequently, vessels have been deemed unseaworthy for defects in the fire-fighting system, leaking hull which effects the water-tight integrity of the vessel, engineering defects and defective anchors.

• Vessels have been deemed unseaworthy for not having an adequate number of walkie-talkies.

• The incompetence of crew and presence of them in inadequate number has also resulted in the vessel being unseaworthy.

Here there must a distinction must be drawn that which is ossified in the case law also is that there is a difference between incompetence and negligence.

• Negligence means master and crew have the basic level of skills and knowledge required for their rank but could not deliver in the heat of the moment due to a variety of reasons.
• Incompetence means non-possession of those skills required for that rank. The vessel will be unseaworthy in case of incompetence only.

[1905] 1 KB 697
Manifest Shipping Co Ltd v Uni-Polaris Insurance Co Ltd (The Star Sea) [2001] UKHL 1, [2003] 1 AC 469;
Hoffmann (C) & Co v British General Insurance Co (1922) 10 L1L Rep 434;
Neue Fischmehl Vertriebsgesellschaft Haselhorst mbH v Yorkshire Insurance Co Ltd (1934) 50L1L Rep 151;
Wilkie v Geddes (1815) 3 Dow 57;
Papera Traders Co Ltd v Hyundai Merchant Marine Co Ltd (The Eurasian Dream) [2002] 1 Lloyd’s Rep 719

Thus, all these classic old cases have a direct reference to the case under discussion which is the defective passage plan and un-seaworthiness.

The standards adopted by the courts from as old cases as Wedderburn v Bell to the Manifest Shipping Co Ltd v Uni-Polaris Insurance Co Ltd (The Star Sea) which went all the way to House of Lords ( as it was called then) show that at any point of time the standards which are prevailing and followed by prudent ship owners should be followed.

The standards are relative over a period but absolute at that time.


As far as defective passage plan is concerned I can only end it with the words of a wise master with whom I sailed many seasons ago. He used to say that “A navigator must know his navigation”. This judgment ossifies it and most probably the result will be the same even if it goes to the UK Supreme Court.

Further Discussion

1) What are the various unique reasons for seaworthiness that have been identified in the last 10 years?

2) How do you judge the competence of an OOW?

3) Do we need the same intervention as Oil Major firms to improve the quality management system on all vessels?

Let’s know in the comments below..


7 Wedderburn v Bell (1807) 1 Camp 1; Standard Oil Co of New York v Clan Line Steamers (The Clan Gordon) [1924] AC 100; Hong Kong Fir Shipping Co v Kawasaki Kisen Kaisha Ltd [1962]2 QB 26; Manifest Shipping Co Ltd v Uni-Polaris Insurance Co Ltd (The Star Sea) [2001] UKHL 1, [2003] 1 AC 469;
(1807) 1 Camp 1
[2001] UKHL 1, [2003] 1 AC 469;

Acknowledgement to Mr.Shariq Ali Gillani (LLM, Mariner) for his views and contribution to write this blog.

About the Author:

Rahul Varma, Advocate, Ex Master Mariner and DPA,

Founder, Ally Maritime And Legal Services, Mumbai, India.



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