The Court of Appeal’s decision in The South West Strategic Health Authority v Bay Island Voyages [2015] EWCA Civ 708 provides guidance on the application of the Athens Convention 1974 in contribution claims against carriers.

The Facts

On 26 August 2008 Dr Feest participated in a one-hour boat trip in the Bristol Channel as part of a corporate team building exercise during her employment with the South West Strategic Health Authority (“SWSHA”).  At the time, she was riding a nine-metre RIB called the Celtic Pioneer at a quay in Cardiff Bay which was operated by Bay Island Voyages (“BIV”).  Dr Feest sustained a serious spinal injury whilst a passenger on board the RIB in circumstances which were unclear, although it was alleged in the underlying claim that the accident occurred due to the fault or neglect of BIV, or of its servants or agents within the scope of their employment with BIV. 

On 25 August 2011 Dr Feest brought a claim for personal injury against SWSHA and on 25 June 2012 SWSHA filed its defence and issued a CPR Part 20 claim against BIV seeking a contribution to any liability to Dr Feest pursuant to Section 1 of the Civil Liability (Contribution) Act 1978. 

BIV filed a defence and asserted that the boat trip was one to which the Convention Relating to the Carriage of Passengers and their Luggage by Sea (the “Athens Convention”) applied.  As part of their defence, BIV relied upon Articles 14 and 16 of the Convention.

Article 14

No action for damages for the death of or personal injury to a passenger, or for the loss of or damage to luggage, shall be brought against a carrier or performing carrier otherwise than in accordance with this Convention.

Article 16

  • An action for damages arising out of the death of or personal injury to a passenger or for the loss of or damage to luggage shall be time-barred after a period of two years.
  • The limitation period shall be calculated as follows:
    • in the case of personal injury, from the date of disembarkation of the passenger...
  • The law of the Court seized of the case shall govern the grounds of suspension and interruption of limitation periods, but in no case shall an action under this Convention be brought after the expiration of a period of three years from the date of disembarkation of the passenger or from the date when disembarkation should have taken place, whichever is later.
  • Notwithstanding paragraphs 1, 2 and 3 of this Article, the period of limitation may be extended by a declaration of the carrier or by agreement of the partied after the cause of action has arisen.  The declaration or agreement shall be in writing.

BIV submitted that the Part 20 claim was misconceived as Article 14 made it clear that no action for damages for personal injury to a passenger was to be brought against a carrier otherwise than in accordance with that Convention and the Part 20 claim did not rely upon the provision of the Convention.

It was also argued that, as Dr Feest had disembarked the vessel on 26 August 2008 and the Part 20 claim was not issued until 25 June 2012, the claim was time barred pursuant to Article 16. 

It was also denied that Dr Feest’s injuries were caused or contributed to by any neglect of BIV, or its employees or argents. 

BIV applied for summary judgment dismissing the claim and was successful.  SWSHA initially appealed to the Mercantile Court and was unsuccessful. 

SWSHA then appealed to the Court of Appeal on the issue of the application of the Athens Convention.

The Court's decision

It was held that the Convention did not apply to SWSHA’s claim for a contribution from BIV and therefore the claim was not time barred. 

The Convention is one for the “unification of certain rules relating to the carriage by sea of passengers and their luggage” and that it does not purport to be a complete code governing all liability of sea carriers to whomsoever owed in respect of the carriage of passengers and their luggage.

A claim for a contribution by a personal injury claim defendant from a carrier was not considered to be “an action for damages for the death of or personal injury to a passenger…brought against a carrier” but was instead separate and was independently derived from the English statutory entitlement to a contribution.  The liability of a carrier to contribute is dependent upon its own liability to the passenger however, which is governed by the provisions of the Convention.

Comment

In their judgment, the Court of Appeal has limited the application of the Athens Convention to only claims by passengers against carriers and not all claims related to damages for the death of or personal injury to a passenger.   

Where a claim is advanced against a ship owner for a contribution, the correct time limit will be two years from the date on which the right to a contribution accrued, that is, two years from the date of settlement or judgment.  In such claims therefore this, rather than the Athens Convention time limits will apply usually giving the claimant longer to commence against the owner.