Maritime Law and Liability For Loss by Dangerous Goods

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The definition of “Dangerous Goods”, and the conditions for their carriage, are laid down in maritime law by the International Maritime Dangerous Goods (IMDG) Code. The number of different items which could fall under the umbrella definition of “Dangerous Goods” means that there are nine different classes of item with provision under the Code, and in each of these classes there are then a number of sub-classes, which may differ in levels of danger, in what it takes for the item to become dangerous and other factors.

Classification of Dangerous Goods

The classes of dangerous substance are numbered, one to nine, and the list is as follows:

  1. Explosives
  2. Gases
  3. Flammable liquids
  4. Flammable solids
  5. Oxidising substances
  6. Toxic and infectious substances
  7. Radioactive materials
  8. Corrosive substances
  9. Miscellaneous dangerous substances and articles.

The numerical order is not related to the degree of danger of items – that is to say that radioactive materials, for example, are not held by the IMDG code to be any less dangerous than oxidising substances.

Hague-Visby Rules

Liability for the carriage of goods by sea is covered by the Hague-Visby rules under the “International Convention for the Unification of Certain Rules of Law relating to Bills of Lading”. These rules were drafted in 1924, amended under the Visby Amendments in 1968, and finalised in 1979. The Hague-Visby Rules make clear that, where goods being transported fall under the IMDG code as dangerous goods, the carrier is responsible for making the ship seaworthy, staffing it correctly and providing for its safe carriage.

For the shipper’s part, it is essential that they make the carrier aware before a journey that items being transported fall into one of the nine orders laid down in the IMDG. Failure to do this will result in the goods being either ejected from the ship at the first safe place, or being made safe (and possibly therefore useless) by the carrier, without the shipper being entitled to compensation. Indeed, any action that needs to be taken in the circumstances will be billed to the shipper of such goods, whether the action relates directly or indirectly to the carriage. In short, it is vital that if a shipper wishes to transport goods that may in any circumstances pose a danger to the health of passengers or the safety of the journey, they alert the carrier before such goods are laden. Failure to do so will result in punishment on as many fronts as are relevant, and see the shipper much worse off than if they were to pay the premium for safe shipping up front.