A recent judgment of the Rotterdam District Court dealt with the impact of a so-called “exoneration signs” on the liability of the stevedores for damage to a vessel during loading or discharging operations. Based on the judgment, we will summarizes the requirements an exoneration sign must meet in order for a stevedoring company to successfully avoid liability for damage caused during cargo operations.
Identifiable and clear: First, an exoneration sign must be identifiable and be clear as to the terms and conditions it imposes. This means that the sign must be sufficiently visible and that the text can be clearly read, including in the evening and at night by the means of appropriate lighting. In addition, the wording should be easy to understand without requiring specific knowledge or training.
Specific: Secondly, the text should specifically identify the risks which the company is seeking to exclude. General wording such as: “we exclude liability for any damage” is not sufficient.
Damage: The facts and circumstances under which damage was caused are relevant in determining whether an exoneration sign may be relied upon, in particular:
- The cause: If the damage is of a type which frequently occurs during loading or unloading, such as a scratch or dent to the cargo hold, it is more likely the stevedoring company will be able to rely on an exoneration sign whereas the more unusual the type of damage, such as damage to a bridge due to contact with a container, the less likely it is to succeed. The basis for this is whether or not the shipowner could reasonably have anticipated that the type of damage could occur;
- The reason for which the vessel is at the berth: Usually a vessel is instructed to a particular berth by a charterer. In those circumstance the shipowner has no choice but to proceed as instructed without an opportunity to seek advice or to refuse those instructions if it does not accept the terms as set out in the exoneration sign; and
- Frequency of attendance: If the vessel regularly comes to the same quay, it is more likely that an exoneration board will apply given that the shipowner will be familiar with their contents.
Whether or not an exoneration sign will allow a stevedoring company to avoid liability ultimately depends on the facts and circumstances of each case. If you have any questions regarding a particular incident or advice regarding the impact an exoneration sign on your legal position, please feel free to contact us.