UK Court: Shipbreaking Fatality Suit May Proceed

Chittagong shipbreaking
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Published Mar 11, 2021 4:39 PM by The Maritime Executive

Britain's Court of Appeals has given the green light for the widow of a Bangladeshi shipbreaking worker to sue Maran (UK) Ltd., the former owner of the tanker Maran Centaurus, in connection with her husband's death. 

The plaintiff, Hamida Begum, was the wife of shipbreaking worker Khalil Mollah, one of the 20 ship recycling employees killed in workplace accidents in Bangladesh in 2018. Mollah, a nine-year veteran of the industry, fell to his death at Chittagong's Zuma Enterprise Shipyard while dismantling the Maran Centaurus.

The 1995-built vessel was originally owned by Maran, but she was sold to Singapore-based cash buyer Wirana Shipping in September 2017. Renamed Ekta and reflagged with a popular end-of-life registry, she made a final voyage to Chittagong, where she was sold to a scrapping yard and dismantled on the beach. 

Maran did not transact directly with Zuma Enterprise, but Begum's lawyers have argued that the shipowner was still responsible for the particulars of the ship's demolition. They contend that despite Wirana's involvement as an intermediary, Maran still had a duty of care for Mollah and other shipbreaking workers. 

Western shipowners almost always conduct shipbreaking sales to South Asia through an intermediary - a cash buyer - who pays for the vessel and then resells it to a beaching scrapyard. This arrangement brings the owner an additional $3-7 million in revenue per vessel sale when compared with the use of a non-beaching ship recycler, according to the the Norwegian Council on Ethics; it also separates the owner from the liabilities of South Asian scrapping enterprises, which operate in a more permissive HSE regulatory environment than that found in Western jurisdictions. 

European courts have shown an increasing willingness to jump past the intermediary and hear cases against shipowners, but only in connection with the environmental impact of shipbreaking. Begum's complaint is the first workplace fatality suit involving overseas shipbreaking to move ahead in a Western court, according to her lawyers. She won the right to pursue the case at the High Court in London last year, and Maran petitioned the UK Court of Appeals to block it.

This week, the court's Lord Justice Coulson ruled that Begum's suit could proceed - though he did not rule conclusively on the merits of the case. "The appellant [Maran] could, and should, have insisted on the sale to a so-called ‘green’ yard, where proper working practices were in place," Coulson wrote. "The appellant arguably played an active role by sending the vessel to Bangladesh, knowingly exposing workers (such as the deceased) to the significant dangers which working on this large vessel in Chattogram entailed.”

“The [findings] will send shockwaves around the shipping industry as a higher court has recognized that shipping companies choosing to send vessels to the beaches of Bangladesh may owe a duty of care to the local workers and can be liable,” said Oliver Holland of Leigh Day, Begum's counsel.