Manufacturer and freight forwarder said by US court to be responsible for containership explosion

A US court has said that an explosion aboard the container ship MSC Flaminia (IMO 9225615) in 2012 was the result of lay with the way the manufacturer and freight forwarder of a potentially hazardous cargo stored it prior to loading.

The US District Court for the Southern District of New York, Katherine B Forrest presiding, heard that on July 14th 2012, as the Flaminia was in the mid-Atlantic travelling from New Orleans to Antwerp, a gas vapour cloud, which looked like smoke, began emerging from one of her holds.

The crew, fatally but reasonably, assumed that it was smoke from a container fire and released CO2 to suppress it. A seven-man team went forward to prepare firehouses alongside the hatch, at which point an explosion killed three crewmembers and severely injured two more. The vessel was damaged and thousands of containers were destroyed.

In an earlier opinion in 2017 in what the judge has described as a large and complex marine matter, and which parties have agreed should be ruled on in a phased manner, the court found that the blast was the result of a runaway chemical reaction within three tanks of divinylbenzene (DVB) – a monomer additive that is used to make plastic resins – and a spark created by the crew’s firefighting response, based on incorrect but reasonable assumptions.

According to the court, the manufacturer of this cargo was aware of the substance’s tendency to self-polymerize, and the potentially dangerous consequences, if exposed to temperatures over 85 degrees F for a prolonged period.

The three tanks of 80% DVB80 were delivered to the New Orleans Terminal for shipment in June. They were stored there, in the sun, for 10 days. They were stowed in the Flaminia’s hold next to a heated cargo of diphenylamine, and near to the ship’s heated bunker fuel tanks. This exposed them to a higher-than-normal temperature during the voyage.

Expert testimony, the acceptance and preclusion of which was also subject to a range of motions ( that the pre-loading and post-loading storage conditions were causal factors in the chemical reaction and the explosion that followed, the court found that only cargo manufacturer Deltech and NVOCC Stolt Tank Containers BV bore responsibility for the casualty.

Judge Forrest specifically found that shipowner Conti, vessel operator NSB, and ocean carrier MSC were not at fault and bore no liability.

The court assigned Deltech majority responsibility. “Contrary to their own safety protocols developed after prior polymerization incidents that determined that shipping DVB out of New Orleans should be avoided in warmer months, Deltech booked the shipment of DVB80 out of New Orleans for late June. This fateful decision was the result of — at the very least — a combination of a considered decision at the highest levels of Deltech and managerial errors that followed,” wrote Forrest. She assigned Deltech a 55% share of the liability.

Stolt was assigned the remaining 45% share for its role in arranging the shipment. “Stolt possessed extensive information regarding the heat sensitive nature of the DVB yet it:

(1)  failed to pass information to the ocean carrier, MSC, in an effective manner regarding the dangers of heat exposure

(2)  was responsible for arranging loading the DVB into ISO containers earlier than it should have, and arranging for those to be transported to NOT and deposited in the open air at the terminal”, Judge Forrest wrote.

A speaker at this week’s IUMI conference estimated the total cost (to be decided at a later date) to be in the region of $300m.

2001-built, Malta-flagged, 75,590 MSC Flaminia is now owned by MSC Flaminia care of manager SB Niederelbe Schiffahrtsgesellschaft mbH & Co KG (NSB Group) of Buxtehude, Germany. Currently it is entered with Swedish Club on behalf of Conti 11. Container Schiffahrts-GmbH & Co KG MS “MSC Flaminia”. Swedish Club is also lead insurer for H&M on the vessel.