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Web Alert: UK Court clarifies meaning of ‘disembarkation’ under Athens Convention

21 March 2017

The Canterbury County Court recently gave judgment in the case of Collins v Lawrence [2017] 1 Lloyd's Rep. 13 which provided some clarification of the meaning of ‘disembarkation’ under the Athens Convention 1974.

On 14 November 2010 the Claimant was returning from a fishing trip aboard the Defendant’s vessel 'GARY ANN'. Upon arrival at Deal, Kent, the Claimant was required to disembark by stepping from the vessel onto a platform and thereafter down some freestanding steps which lead to a shingle beach. At the bottom of the steps, but before the beach, a large plywood board had been placed – presumably to provide a flat surface to aid disembarkation. The Claimant slipped on this board causing him to rupture his quadriceps tendon.

The Claimant brought a claim for personal injury against the owner of the vessel. In its defence the owner argued that the claim was already time-barred, having being brought outside the two-year limitation period under the Athens Convention.

The Claimant disputed that the Convention applied and argued that as soon as he had stepped out of the boat and onto the platform at the top of the steps he had disembarked the vessel. In the alternative, he argued that disembarkation was complete once he reached ground level at the bottom of the steps, when he stepped onto the plywood board.

The Court was therefore required to determine whether the accident occurred whilst the claimant was in the course of disembarkation within the meaning of the relevant provisions of the Athens Convention?

The Convention applies to the carriage of a passenger or his luggage. ‘Carriage’ itself is defined under Article 1(8) of the Convention as…

the period during which the passenger and/or his cabin luggage are on board the ship or in the course of embarkation or disembarkation…. However, with regard to the passenger, carriage does not include the period during which he is in a marine terminal or station or on a quay or in or on any other port installation” [emphasis added].

Giving judgment for the Defendant the judge rejected the Claimant’s submission that disembarkation had been completed when the Claimant stepped on to the platform at the top of the steps leading to the beach. In his view, disembarkation was by way of the steps leading to the beach, and was complete when the Claimant arrived safely on the beach.

Dealing with the Claimant’s alternative submissions, the judge agreed that once safely on the beach the Claimant was no longer in ‘carriage’, under the terms of the Convention. However, in this case the judge held that the plywood board had been placed on the beach as part of the disembarkation equipment (in other words in order to assist the Claimant’s disembarkation). As such the Claimant was still in the process of disembarking the vessel at the material time, and therefore the Athens Convention applied to the claim.

As a consequence of the above finding the Claimant’s claim was deemed time barred.

Members should be aware that there is no agreed definition of the word ‘disembarkation’, or indeed ‘embarkation’ under the Athens Convention and this case highlights the difficulties that can arise when an incident that is proximate in time to either action occurs.

This article intends to provide only general guidance on the above issues, arising as a matter of English law. It is not intended to provide legal advice in relation to any specific query. ​In case of any doubt, the member should not hesitate to contact the authors, or their usual club contact. The law is not static and if in any doubt The Standard Club is always on hand to assist.​​