Law Report: Port authority's duty on pilotage: Oceangas (Gibraltar) Ltd v Port of London Authority; The Cavendish - Queen's Bench Division (Admiralty Court) (Mr Justice Clarke), 18 May 1993

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The duty imposed on a harbour authority by section 2 of the Pilotage Act 1987 was not to pilot ships but merely to supply a properly authorised pilot, so the authority was not vicariously liable to a shipowner for damage caused by such a pilot's negligence.

Mr Justice Clarke so ruled on a preliminary issue as to whether, on the basis of certain agreed facts, the defendants, Port of London Authority (PLA) were liable to the plaintiffs, Oceangas (Gibraltar) Ltd, for loss and damage resulting from the collision of the plaintiff's ship, the Cavendish, with the Sunk Head Tower or Buoy in the approaches to the River Thames on 13 February 1990.

At the time of the collision, the ship was in the hands of a compulsory pilot employed by the PLA. It was assumed, for the purpose of this ruling, that the collision and resulting damage were caused by his negligence.

The plaintiffs submitted that the PLA were vicariously liable for that negligence, in that they owed a positive duty to provide pilotage services to them under section 2 of the 1987 Act.

Charles Macdonald QC (William A Crump) for the plaintiffs; Stephen Tomlinson QC (Ince & Co) for the Port of London Authority.

MR JUSTICE CLARKE said that, traditionally, pilots had been self-employed, but were licensed by harbour authorities.

At common law, or under earlier legislation, the owners of vessels were liable for the negligence of a pilot, whether compulsory or not. The plaintiffs argued that the 1987 Act had altered the law, such that where loss or damage was caused by the negligence of a compulsory pilot employed by an authority such as the PLA, the shipowners were entitled to recover damages from that authority, and that section 2 imposed on the authority a duty to pilot ships for which it provided a pilot.

But his Lordship concluded that if the 1987 Act had been intended to provide for a new duty on the pilotage authority, it would have done so in clear and unequivocal terms. In essence, section 2 gave statutory definition to duties which were in practice assumed by pilotage authorities under earlier legislation.

The purport and effect of section 2 was not to impose duties upon competent authorities to pilot ships but to require them to supply properly authorised pilots for ships. It followed that the PLA was not vicariously liable in tort for any negligence of the pilot on board the Cavendish.

Paul Magrath, Barrister