Master’s early action on damaged cargo can help reduce liabilities

In the latest edition of Signals, North P&I Club has noted that a Master’s early actions can do a lot to help their position and can even help in defending or reducing liabilities when they are informed that wet or damaged cargo has been found in a hold

North said that there were always certain actions that needed to be taken, including:

  • Investigate what caused the damage
  • Notify others who may be interested in the cargo
  • Minimise the amount of damage as best as possible
  • Get the damaged cargo off the ship so it can continue to the next port as soon as possible

Unfortunately, these objectives could sometimes conflict with each other.

While a careful discharge could minimize further damage and better segregate good cargo from spoiled, it could delay the ship. Similarly, notifying other parties could result in them delaying the continuation of discharge.

North said that the Master and crew could not expect or be expected to do everything themselves. Unless the wetting or damage was obviously very minor, one of the Master’s first actions should be to call the Club’s local correspondent for assistance.

If the damage is significant and the correspondent is unable to solve the problem alone, it will appoint an experienced local surveyor to attend on board to assist the Master.

Together they can help deal with the stevedores and cargo interests to try to ensure that the cargo is discharged quickly, with minimum further damage. and to investigate the cause of the damage. North said that the crew should cooperate fully with the correspondent and surveyor and provide whatever information and documentation may be requested by them.

Capture the evidence

In any event, the Master should take photos of the damage and area surrounding the damage. The quality of images from some smartphone cameras can be poor, so where possible a digital camera on the highest resolution setting should be used.

But a smartphone camera is better than no photos at all.

North said that, if possible, the Master should ensure that the crew do not separately take their own videos or photographs to avoid the un-necessary release of potentially damaging information.

The Master can also take samples of both damaged and undamaged cargo. These should be collected in individual plastic bags and, if the cargo is degradable, stored in a fridge until the surveyor can take custody.

Control of information and evidence

If the damage is severe, the Master may find they have less control over the situation. The cargo interests will have their own surveyors who will liaise with the ship’s surveyor. The ship may be arrested so will be delayed in any event. It is likely that cargo interests’ surveyors, court surveyors, experts or lawyers will start making all sorts of demands on the Master for statements or ship’s documents.

North said that the Master should take guidance from the correspondent and surveyor on this. Possibly the best solution is for all the requested documentation and statements to be released to the correspondent, who can hold it until the owner, the P&I Club and the cargo interests can reach agreement on what should be released and when.

The Master should check with the owner whether to put the charterer on notice of the matter and reserve the owner’s rights under the charterparty. North admitted that this could  be a worrying time for a Master. “A Master cannot be expected to be a legal expert or cargo expert as well as a ship handling expert. In the event of cargo damage, take samples, take photos, call for assistance and let others take some of the pressure!”, the Club concluded.