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If there is a malady, there must be a remedy. So who pays?

The European nations have a rich history of ships and sea-faring. The Vikings, the Norsemen, the Dutch, Spanish, Portuguese, Columbus and the English; boats are an integral part of life. So when one ship rams another, it’s like an Ambassador crossing swords with a BMW. Of course, two Altos can also start a war. But ships are more sacrosanct. This time, we go to Denmark and talk of boats, gearboxes, hosepipes, coupling rings and maintenance, all dovetailing into consumer protection.

A bit of tech-info first. Boats are steered by rudders that flap at the rear. In large ships, the rudder is moved by a gearbox, because the strain cannot be overcome by human effort. In still larger vessels, the gearbox itself needs additional help. This assistance comes from a hydraulic system, usually based on oil at a pressure. Now, think of power steering. Also think of steering failure—a car in motion and unable to respond to steering. 

This is what happened in the port of Thyboron. Libas, a trawling vessel was in port; stationary. Lykke Hametner, a fishing boat, became rudderless, wayward and rammed into Libas. The gearbox had failed! The hosepipe had worked loose; the connecting ring had malfunctioned. It was also determined that the part that couples the gearbox to the hosepipe was too small in size and that was the reason for the failure.

You be the judge. Whom would you hold responsible? Lykke Hametner, the gearbox manufacturer, the agent supplying the gearbox, the master of Lykke Hametner, the installing workshop or maybe even the Libas? Remember our oft-repeated phrase... If there is a malady, there must be a remedy. So who pays?

The owners of the Libas and their insurance company sued. The matter was subjected to legal proceedings. As is the case every time, finger-pointing started. It was the judge’s turn to bell the cat.

The court held, “It has not been proven that any of the shipyard’s employees have acted negligently in connection with the installation of the gearbox, however, the court finds that the shipyard, as a professional distributor of the gearbox, is responsible vis-à-vis the claimants for the manufacturing defects for which the gearbox manufacturer is liable.”

In other words, the installing shipyard as well as the manufacturer are liable to make good the damages to the Libas.

The reasons for the order are informative and instructive. First, the nature of damages and the cause. Lykke Hametner was uncontrollable. Was it the fault of the captain? Or the fault of the crew? The gearbox itself had not failed, as properly held by the manufacturer. It was the coupling that had allowed the hosepipe to slip away. Was it then the responsibility of the installing party, the shipyard?

The court zeroed in on the coupling. Since the gearbox was not substandard, the coupling was the culprit. It was supplied by the gearbox manufacturer and fitted by the shipyard. Duty of care, in supply and installation, was necessary. 

The coupling is a small component; but, as in many cases, it’s the loose screw that causes the million-dollar equipment to fail. The Challenger spacecraft exploded and killed its crew due to the hardening of a rubber ring. The Apollo 13 lunar mission failed because of a switch. As did the first F-1-type race-car at Indianapolis; for the breakdown of a six-dollar bearing. For the want of a nail, a kingdom…! 

The court has to go into the merits of the claim and the defence. In the matter of the colliding boats, it did. The connection was not strong enough. Manufacturer and installer to blame. 

What does it teach us? Keep all data intact. Check on new and repaired equipment. Servicing is not for the uninitiated. In this case, no lives were lost; but a simple malfunction can lead to another disaster. And, if you have to go to court, nothing works in your favour like documentary evidence. Preserve it.

Courtesy: Moneylife

Bapoo Malcolm is a practising lawyer in Mumbai. Please email your comments to

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