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A quick guide to instituting maritime collision claims in Nigeria

A quick guide to instituting maritime collision claims in Nigeria

Maritime collision claims in Nigeria refer to legal actions filed by individuals or entities seeking compensation for damages resulting from collisions involving ships or vessels in Nigerian waters. The following fictitious scenario presents a summary of how maritime collision claims arise, following a collision: On a foggy morning in the Lagos Harbour, the M/V Harmony, a cargo ship carrying containers, collided with the M/V Victory, a tanker vessel transporting petroleum products. The collision occurred due to a miscommunication between the ships’ navigational teams and inadequate visibility caused by the foggy conditions. As a result of the collision, the M/V Harmony sustained significant damage to its hull and cargo, leading to the loss of several containers and pollution caused by the release of hazardous materials. The M/V Victory suffered damage to its bow and incurred repair costs.

Maritime collision claims typically involve collisions between vessels, including ships, boats, or barges, and can lead to significant property damage, personal injuries, or even loss of life. This article offers insight into the regime of maritime collision claims in Nigeria, spotlighting key provisions of the law which regulate the filing of maritime claims in court. It further contains key factors that potential plaintiffs should note when instituting maritime collision claims in Nigeria.

What is a maritime collision claim?

A maritime collision claim in Nigeria is a civil action brought by a person who has suffered damage as a result of a collision between two or more vessels in Nigerian waters. Such claims can encompass a wide range of issues, including property damage, cargo loss, personal injuries, pollution, and even salvage operations. These claims aim to compensate the aggrieved party for the losses suffered due to the collision. By virtue of Section 2 of the Admiralty Jurisdiction Act, a collision claim is an action in rem which can be brought against the maritime property which could be a cargo, vessel or freight.

Filing of the preliminary act is fundamental as it is the core basis upon which the maritime collision claim is determined

Framework for collision under the Merchant Shipping Act and the International Front

The principal law that governs collisions in Nigeria is the Merchant Shipping Act, 2007 (“MSA”). Sections 338–344 of the MSA provide for liability in collision cases; more particularly, Section 345 of the MSA provides that the damages recoverable by the claimant under the MSA shall be restoration of the claimant to the same financial position as he would have been in had the collision not occurred. The MSA further states that the liability of a defendant in a collision case is limited to the damages considered to be the direct and immediate consequence of the collision.

On the international front, the major convention that regulates collisions is the Convention on the International Regulations for Preventing Collisions at Sea, 1972 (“COLREGs”). This convention seeks to regulate and prevent the collision of vessels and maintain the discipline of marine traffic to prevent collisions on the high seas.

The International Convention for the Safety of Life at Sea, 1974 (“SOLAS”), as enshrined in Part XII of the MSA, also regulates the adherence to safety at sea. Non-compliance with the provisions of this convention is treated as a criminal offence under the MSA.

Read also: Lagos Maritime Week to examine Nigeria’s push for a Cleaner Ocean

Other legal framework for filing maritime collision claims

The following laws regulate the filing of maritime collision claims in Nigeria:

1. The Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria, 1999 (as amended)

2. Federal High Court Act

3. Admiralty Jurisdiction Act

4. Merchant Shipping (Collision) Rules, 2010, (modelled after the COLREGs)

5. Federal High Court (Civil Procedure) Rules 2019

6. Admiralty Jurisdiction Procedure Rules, 2011

Jurisdiction of maritime collision claims

The Federal High Court has exclusive jurisdiction to hear and adjudicate maritime collision claims in Nigeria. This is because maritime claims are considered to be admiralty matters, and the Federal High Court has exclusive jurisdiction over admiralty matters by virtue of Section 251(1)(g) of the Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria. Section 7(1)(d) of the Federal High Court Act expressly provides that The Court shall have and exercise jurisdiction in civil causes of Admiralty jurisdiction.

Procedures involved in maritime collision claims

By virtue of Order 3 of the Admiralty Jurisdiction Procedure Rules, a maritime collision claim is commenced by a Writ of Summons which is accompanied by a statement of claim and copies of documents to be relied on at the trial. Also, Order 4 of the AJPR requires that the parties should file a preliminary act unless the court directs otherwise. The preliminary act to be filed contains the following details:

a. The names of the ships which came into collision and their ports of registry.

b. The length, breadth, gross tonnage, beam, horsepower and draught at the material time of the collision and the nature and tonnage of any cargo carried by the ship.

c. The date and time (including the time zone of the collision).

d. The place of the collision.

e. The direction and force of the wind.

f. The state of the weather.

g. The state, direction and force of the tidal or other current.

h. The position, the course steered and speed through the water, of the ship when the other ship was first seen or immediately before any measures were taken with reference to her presence, whichever was the earlier.

i. The lights or shapes (if any) carried by the ship.

j. The distance and bearing of the other ship if and when her echo was first observed by radar, and the distance, bearing and approximate heading of the other ship when first seen.

k. The light or shape or combination of lights or shapes (if any) of the other ship when first seen.

l. Other lights or shapes or combinations of lights or shapes (if any) of the other ship subsequently seen before the collision, and when.

m. The alterations (if any) made to the course and speed of the ship after the earlier of the two times referred to in Rule 2 (h) of this order up to the time of the collision and when, and what measures of course or speed, taken to avoid the collision and when.

n. The heading of the ship, parts of each ship which first came into contact and the approximate angle between the two ships at the moment of contact.

o. The sound signals (if any) given and when.

p. The sound signals (if any) heard from the other ship, and when.

Read also: UK warship arrives Nigeria to combat illegal maritime activities

This preliminary act must be filed by the plaintiff within 7 days after the proceedings commence, while the other party must file their preliminary act before any pleading is filed. It should be noted that the filing of the preliminary act is fundamental as it is the core basis upon which the maritime collision claim is determined. Where the plaintiff fails to file the preliminary act, the Court may, on application, dismiss the proceedings or make such order on terms as it thinks just. Where a defendant fails to file a preliminary act, the plaintiff may take the same steps in the proceeding as may be taken in relation to a defendant who has failed to file a defence under the Federal High Court (Civil Procedure) Rules.

Regarding the assessment of collision damage, the MSA makes copious provisions for this by providing guidelines on how collision damage should be assessed. A plaintiff will be entitled to recover damages which are the direct and immediate consequence of the collision. The damages recoverable shall be such as to place the plaintiff in the same financial position as they would have been, had the collision not occurred.

Key points potential plaintiffs should take note of when filing a maritime collision claim in Nigeria

a. Limitation period: By virtue of Section 18 of the Admiralty Jurisdiction Act, the limitation period for filing a maritime collision claim in Nigeria is three years from the date of the collision. This means that a plaintiff must file their claim within three years of the date of the collision, or they will be barred from bringing the claim.

b. Evidential burden: To be successful in a maritime collision claim, the plaintiff must establish that the collision was caused by the negligence of the other party. This means that the plaintiff must show that the other party failed to take reasonable care to avoid the collision. The plaintiff must also be able to prove the damages that they have suffered as a result of the collision. This includes both economic losses, such as the cost of repairs to the ship, and non-economic losses, such as pain and suffering.

c. Documentation: Plaintiffs should gather all relevant evidence and documentation related to the collision, including incident reports, witness statements, photographs, and any available expert opinions. This evidence is crucial in supporting the claim and establishing liability.

d. Legal representation: Engaging the services of a knowledgeable maritime lawyer is highly recommended. Maritime collision claims can be complex, requiring expertise in admiralty law and procedural intricacies. A skilled attorney can provide valuable guidance and advocacy throughout the claims process.

Conclusion

Maritime collision claims can be complex and time-consuming to pursue. However, if a plaintiff is successful in their claim, they may be able to recover significant damages. Instituting maritime collision claims in Nigeria involves navigating the procedural framework established by the Admiralty Jurisdiction Procedural Rules and the Federal High Court Civil Procedure Rules. The Federal High Court has exclusive jurisdiction over such claims, and potential plaintiffs should be mindful of the three-year time limitation for filing. By understanding the legal requirements, seeking professional advice, and gathering relevant evidence, plaintiffs can effectively pursue compensation for damages, injuries, or losses resulting from maritime collisions in Nigeria.

Joseph Siyaidon is the Team Lead of the Arbitration, Maritime Construction and Energy Disputes Practice Group at Stren & Blan Partners while Stanley Umezuruike is an Associate in the firm’s Arbitration, Maritime Construction and Energy Disputes Practice Group.

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