In Finland, maritime courts have exclusive jurisdiction in litigation concerning any matter covered by the Maritime Code (674/1994). However, the scope of jurisdiction leaves room for interpretation. The division of jurisdiction between maritime courts and general courts has caused confusion in practice and the Supreme Court has given preliminary rulings on the question in several cases (KKO 1980 II 126, KKO 1989:79, KKO 1990:63, KKO 1996:108, KKO 2004:67 and KKO 2007:54).
In the most recent precedent (KKO 2017:24, issued in May 2017), the Supreme Court found that the Maritime Code should have been applied and that the Espoo District Court (as a general court) did not have subject-matter jurisdiction over a personal injury claim. On November 12 2008 the claimant participated in an event which included a ride on a 20-seater rigid-inflatable boat. The event had been organised by company Y, while the boat was owned by company X. The claimant injured his back during the boat ride and stated that the injury had been caused as a result of the boat driver's driving at too high a speed without considering the prevailing sea conditions. X opposed the action, arguing that the claimant had been aware of the nature of the boat ride and had accepted the risk involved.
The Supreme Court found that when determining which court has subject-matter jurisdiction, it is necessary to first investigate in each case whether the provisions of the Maritime Code become applicable. The court stated that, in principle, the code regulates 'merchant shipping', although the code does not define the content of that term. However, the court further stated that the legislative history of the code and the government proposal concerning the Register of Ships Act (512/1993) indicate that 'merchant shipping' is not intended to cover only merchant vessels. It is also defined in the Act on Fairway Dues (1122/2005) as operations carried out by ships for commercial purposes, such as transport of cargo and passengers, towing, icebreaking, catching fish or search and rescue operations.
The court noted that the content of the term 'vessel' is also broad. The code does not define this term either, but the court referred to the International Regulations for Preventing Collisions at Sea, in which 'vessel' includes every description of watercraft – including non-displacement craft, wing-in-ground effect craft and seaplanes – used or capable of being used as a means of transport on water. The court concluded that even if the term 'vessel' was not considered as engaged in merchant shipping, the code may still be applicable.
The court found that even though the claimant had not personally concluded a contract with X for the boat ride, liability was based on the agreement between X and Y for organising the boat ride. It was not decisive whether X's activities or the organisation of the boat ride was characterised as providing a service, organising a public event or carrying passengers professionally. Instead, according to the court, as regards the application of the Maritime Code, it was essential that X had, on the basis of the contract, carried the claimant professionally and against payment on a vessel suitable for merchant shipping, during which the claimant had suffered the personal injury. Therefore, the case concerned the professional transportation of passengers, as regulated in Chapter 15 of the Maritime Code. Further, according to the Supreme Court, to evaluate the actions of the boat driver and the vessel's behaviour in prevailing sea conditions, the use of the maritime experts of the maritime court was reasonable.
The Supreme Court concluded that the maritime court had exclusive jurisdiction over the case and consequently referred it back to the competent maritime court. The Supreme Court ruled that it shall always ex officio investigate subject-matter jurisdiction, even if the Maritime Code has not been referred to by either party.
However, the Supreme Court decision was not unanimous. The dissenting opinion was that the case did not concern the carriage of passengers within the meaning of Chapter 15. Therefore, the minority was of the opinion that the code did not apply and the Espoo District Court, as a general court, had jurisdiction in this case.
For further information on this topic please contact Matti Komonen at HPP Attorneys Ltd by telephone (+358 9 474 2207) or email ([email protected]). The HPP Attorneys Ltd website can be accessed at www.hpp.fi.