Begum v Maran: Landmark incentive to improve working conditions at Shipbreaking yards

April 15, 2021

2 min read

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What's going on here?

The landmark ruling of Begum v Maran [2021] EWCA Civ 326 established that a British shipping company could owe a duty of care to the deceased, who had fallen to his death during the demolition (shipbreaking) of their defunct shipping tanker in Bangladesh.

What does this mean?

The deceased’s wife contended that the shipbroker owed a duty of care to the workers who were shipbreaking the vessel on two grounds. Firstly on the basis that the shipbroker held autonomous control over the sale of the vessel. Secondly, the high price of the sale of the vessel suggested it would be “broken up in Bangladesh at a yard with negligible safety standards” with “few occupational health and safety controls or inspections” available. 

The judgment itself explores two duty of care routes. Coulson LJ concluded that although the duty of care dimension of this case was “faced with formidable hurdles, [they] cannot be dismissed as fanciful”. 

Overall, this case considered that even where multiple third parties were involved in the transaction to organise the shipbreaking of a vessel, the party selling the vessel could remain accountable and continue to owe a legal duty of care.

What's the big picture effect?

When ship demolition is not appropriately regulated, it comes at a substantial human cost. Whilst precise statistical data is difficult to obtain, towards the end of 2019 it was reported that “at least 23 shipbreaking workers” were killed and “at least 75 workers…[were] injured in accidents at Bangladeshi shipbreaking yards”. Beyond this, Bangladesh has also been recognised by both the NGO Shipbreaking Platform and the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development as a world leader above India, Pakistan, Turkey and China “by dismantling 47.2% vessels of the world in 2018”. 

For a test case on worker safety of this kind to have taken so long to arise, is quite astonishing. Martyn Day, director at the law firm Leigh Day, recognises that whether such claims relate to oil-spills, mine pollution or shipbreaking, where “London has proved to be one of, if not the only, capitals in the world where claims can successfully be brought,” this does suggest a step in the right direction. Moreover, where the court has looked beyond what has been standard practice between several parties for decades and recognised duty of care as a triable issue, Oliver Holland, a partner at Leigh Day also goes so far as stating that the findings will “send shockwaves around the shipping industry”. One can only hope that such shockwaves will not only raise further awareness but instigate positive change across the industry globally. This will hopefully ensure that shipping companies can no longer avoid responsibility for such foreseeable and avoidable occurrences. 

Despite becoming statute barred on the basis of Bangladeshi law, the case has now been referred to the Queen’s Bench Division for the trial of the preliminary issue; this concerns the limitation period attached to this claim. We now await judgment on whether reliance on foreign law in the form of the undue hardship test established in Article 26 of Rome II applies.

Report written by Karolina Smolicz 

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