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There is a lot hanging on what we are learning to call the “ Erika ” trial, which opened in Paris this week and which is, we suspect, destined to become something of a cause célèbre.

There are important issues of responsibility, of liability and, above all, of blame, in an action which is designed to apportion this element between the various parties.

It is a trial that will be watched with concern by charterers, which have in the past managed to distance themselves from any proceedings involving ships carrying their cargoes. It will also be closely scrutinised by classification societies, both in terms of the work they do under delegation from flag states, and for their traditional classification role.

As for the flag state of the ship, this has managed to extract itself from the trial because of its sovereign immunity. The position of owners and managers and the (wisely non-appearing) master of the ship, will also be brought into focus, and their opposite numbers all around the world will look anxiously for what lessons they can take from the Paris court.

The roles of the French local and maritime authorities in those desperate hours in December 1999 will also be revisited.

Central to the proceedings will be the structural state of the 24-year-old ship as it left the port of Dunkirk for Livorno with a cargo of fuel oil, indistinguishable from refinery waste. The weather, as the ship headed down-Channel and around Ushant was severe, the ship’s appeal for a place of refuge when the emergency aboard began was clearly an issue, although whether the denial of this had any bearing on the eventual result is somewhat inconclusive.

The basic question of who takes responsibility for the structural state of the ship will also be germane. The concept of the “chain of responsibility” was still being forged in 1999, and the roles of owner, manager, class, flag state, port state, charterer, insurer and financier in the matter of ship quality was still open to argument.

Much was spoken about the port state inspections of the old ship, although in truth no port state inspector would have been able to gain access to the tanks.

The oil company charterer, with its vetting schemes in place, would similarly have relied on others for actual sightings and surveys of the ship’s internals. But they also have to defend themselves against the widely held belief that a blue chip French oil company should not have been scraping the bottom of the barrel in its choice of a ship for this high-risk cargo, around Europe in the depths of winter.

Class would have been in a position to inspect the vessel’s internals, but only sporadically, upon its periodic surveys. There is still a polite fiction maintained by many people who seem to suggest that there is almost a permanent presence of a classification society surveyor aboard a ship.

The owner and manager would have been in a better position to assess any structural deterioration below decks, and were obligated to contact class in relation to any repairs.

If this sounds like an industry riddled with interests who shrink from taking responsibility, and whose operations then precluded the intervention of any one party in this commercial undertaking, it is difficult to defend.

But the ship was not unknown to the charterer, while despite its age, it had not been identified as a “rustbucket”.

Did the industry learn from the Erika , without having to relive the ordeal all over again at the current trial? Undoubtedly it has, in so many different ways, although other accidents to old ships such as the Prestige and Castor were to shake confidence in its systems and suggest that there were more areas for improvement.

Will the trial add much to the sum of human knowledge about tanker operation and issues of responsibility? That, by contrast is a bit doubtful. Blame is what matters here.

Gimme a fag
The health police are on the march, extending their dread remit offshore and consultations are to take place as to how ships are to comply with the ban on smoking in public places when this bites England in July.

Enforcement, one suspects, will be high on the agenda during the consultation period.

Will navigational safety be affected by a flotilla of ships lurking just outside territorial waters, in a cloud of cigarette smoke?


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