Glencore Energy UK Ltd v Freeport Holdings Ltd  EWHC 3348 (Comm) raised the question of whether barratry affected owners’ entitlement to rely on two of the exceptions in art. IV (2) of the Hague-Visby Rules. A fire started inside the engine control room of the “Lady M” while the vessel was on a laden voyage from Russia to the USA. The fire resulted in owners engaging salvors to tow the vessel to Las Palmas where owners declared general average. Cargo interests denied liability to contribute on the basis that there had been the fire had constituted a breach of the contract of carriage, which was subject to the Hague-Visby Rules. I
t was agreed that the fire was started deliberately by a member of the crew with the intent to cause damage and for the purposes of the preliminary issues the assumed facts were that: the perpetrator was the Chief Engineer; he acted alone; at the time of starting the fire deliberately and with intent to cause damage he was: “a. under extreme emotional stress and/or anxiety due to the illness of his mother; b. alternatively, suffering from an unknown and undiagnosed personality disorder and/or mental illness;c. alternatively, neither a nor b above.”
Three preliminary issues came before Popplewell J.
(1) Did the conduct of the chief engineer constitute barratry?
(2) Is Article IV Rule 2(b) capable of exempting the Owners from liability if the fire was deliberately or barratrously caused?
(3) Are the Owners exempt from liability under the “any other cause” exception in Article IV Rule 2(q)?
Popplewell J defined barratry as (i) a deliberate act or omission by the master, crew or other servant of the owners (ii) which is a wrongful act or omission (iii) to the prejudice of the interests of the owner of the ship or goods (whether or not such prejudice is intended) (iv) without the privity of the owner. A “wrongful act or omission” would be: one that is generally recognised as a crime, including the mental element necessary to make the conduct criminal; or (b) a serious breach of duty owed by the person in question to the shipowner, committed by him knowing it to be a breach of duty or reckless whether that be so. It would be necessary for the crew member to have had the necessary knowledge or intent that what he is doing is either a crime or a serious breach of duty owed towards his owners, or at least recklessness in that regard. On the assumed facts the chief engineer may or may not have constituted barratry, depending upon further facts as to his state of mind. However, the issue of barratry was not determinative of the second and third preliminary issues.
Popplewell J went on to find that the owners were able to rely on the fire exception in art. IV (2)(b) applied, whether or not the fire was caused by barratry. However, they would not be able to rely on the “any other cause” exception in art. IV (2)(q) as the chief engineer was acting within the course of his employment on the agreed facts. His access to the control room arose directly from the field of activities entrusted to him by the owners and his setting fire to the control room, with intent to cause damage, was a misuse of his position in the field of activities for which he was employed.