collisions with stationary objects: negligence
The recent decision in City Cruises Plc v Transport for
London  provides a useful illustration of how a court
will approach the question of responsibility when a vessel collides
with a stationery object.
City Cruises (the claimant) operated a passenger catamaran, the
"Millennium City", on the Thames. On 25 January 2008, while
cruising at night down the river, the Millennium City passed
downstream under the centre arch of Westminster Bridge and made
contact with one of the piers under the arch. Her bilge alarms
sounded and she started to develop a list to starboard, and it was
subsequently discovered that she had sustained a serious gash to
her starboard side.
During the course of inspections of the bridge, a piece of
jagged steel was found to be protruding about 12 inches out of the
arch buttress with which the Millennium City had made contract. The
claimant brought proceedings against the owners of Westminster
Bridge, Transport for London (the defendant), alleging that damage
to the Millennium City had been caused by the defendant's
negligence or breach of duty. In essence, it was alleged that the
defendant had failed to properly maintain the bridge, or to mark or
light it so as to enable vessels to line up with the arch. It was
further claimed that the defendant was responsible for the
protruding piece of steel and had failed to give any warning of its
One of the issues which the court had to resolve at trial was
who, if anyone, was responsible for the collision.
It has long been an established principle that when a moving
object comes into collision with one which is stationery there is a
rebuttable presumption that the responsibility lies with those in
charge of the moving object be it a car or a vessel.
This principle was recognised in The Po and the Bowditch
 1 Lloyd's Rep 418, in which the court found that when
one vessel dragged her anchor and struck another anchored vessel,
on the face of it, and without a credible explanation that the
collision occurred despite the exercise of reasonable care, the
fault lay with the dragging vessel.
In City Cruises the burden thus fell on the claimant to prove,
on the balance of probabilities that the fault for the collision
did not result from the want of reasonable care by those in command
of the Millennium City. The court did not accept that the master of
the Millennium City had exercised such reasonable care, and
concluded that his evidence was confused, and it was seriously
doubtful that he had a clear recollection of the events leading up
to the collision, and accordingly the court could not accept that
the vessel was lined up properly on the centre line of the arch.
Further, the court concluded that the master had displayed poor
seamanship because the speed at which he approached and passed
through the arch was greater than was sensible or acceptable, and
reduced the amount of time he had to ensure the Millennium City was
properly aligned. This was causative of the collision, and there
was nothing to persuade a court that the master had not made an
error of judgment in taking the line of approach that he did.
This decision serves as a useful reminder of how courts will
approach collision cases where a vessel collides with a stationery
object. There will be a presumption that the collision is the
responsibility of those in command of the moving vessel. Clear
evidence that such a collision could not be avoided despite the
exercise of reasonable care will be required if those in command of
the moving vessel are to avoid liability in such circumstances.
The decision also highlights the importance of the court's
assessment of witnesses and their evidence at trial and the need
for a robust assessment of that evidence prior to reaching