When Does a Passenger Disembark From a Vessel?

When can a passenger be said to have embarked or disembarked from a vessel? The Court of Appeal resolved that issue in a novel case of significance to tourists and others who are injured when making their way on and off boats.

The case concerned a man whose fishing trip ended disastrously when he slipped and fell after the boat on which he had been carried was winched up onto a shingle beach. He was going down a set of steps that was maintained as a semi-permanent structure on the beach when he slipped on a damp wooden board at the bottom and suffered a ruptured tendon in his knee.

After lawyers launched proceedings on the passenger's behalf, a judge found that negligence on the part of the vessel's owner was the primary cause of the accident. The passenger's claim was, however, dismissed on the basis that it had been brought outside the two-year time limit specified by the Athens Convention relating to the Carriage of Passengers and their Luggage by Sea 1974. The Convention governs the liabilities of sea carriers in respect of injuries suffered by passengers.

In challenging that decision, the passenger's legal team argued that the Convention did not apply to the case and that the claim was therefore not barred by the passage of time. It was submitted that his disembarkation from the vessel was complete when he stepped onto the platform at the top of the steps.

The Court noted that there was no previous legal authority on the point. In refusing permission to appeal, however, it observed that the steps were part of the vessel's disembarkation equipment. In those circumstances, disembarkation was not complete until the passenger had set both feet on the shingle and established himself safely on the beach. There was no legal flaw in the judge's decision and the passenger's appeal thus had no real prospect of success.

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