Précis: A small vessel collision case in which liability was apportioned 80% to the moving vessel whose operator was impaired and 20% to the stationary vessel. The case is also notable for holding that the owner of the moving vessel was not liable even though there were some maintenance issues with the boat that contributed to the accident.
Facts: On 30 June 2008 a vessel owned by Maridee Skidmore and driven by her son Cory Skidmore (the "Skidmore Vessel") collided with a vessel owned and operated by Norman Atkinson (the "Atkinson Vessel") causing personal injury and property damage. At the time of the collision, the Atkinson Vessel was stationary in the water with its engine off and had been stationary for about 30 minutes. The operator of the Atkinson Vessel was at the back of the boat attempting to untangle a tow line from the propeller. A passenger in the Atkinson Vessel noticed the Skidmore Vessel approaching at a distance of about 300 feet with its hull straight out of the water. She alerted the others in her vessel and jumped on the seat to wave her arms and scream at the approaching vessel. The operator of the Skidmore Vessel did not see the Atkinson Vessel because he could not see over the bow and did not hear the screams until it was too late. The Skidmore Vessel hit the starboard bow of the Atkinson Vessel at a speed of 15 mph. The operator of the Skidmore Vessel was impaired at the time and the Skidmore Vessel had the wrong propeller with the result that at a speed of 15 mph it would not plane and the operator could not see over the bow.
Three actions were commenced against the owner of the Skidmore Vessel, the operator of the Skidmore Vessel and the owner/operator of the Atkinson Vessel. The operator of the Skidmore Vessel admitted his liability. The issues were whether the Owner of the Skidmore Vessel and the owner/operator of the Atkinson Vessel were also liable and how liability ought to be apportioned.
Decision: The Owner of the Skidmore Vessel is not liable. The owner/operator of the Atkinson Vessel is liable. Liability is apportioned 80% to the operator of the Skidmore Vessel and 20% to the owner/operator of the Atkinson Vessel.
Held: With respect to the liability of the owner of the Skidmore Vessel, it was held by the Nova Scotia Court of Appeal in Conrad v Snair, 1995 CanLII 4175, that a boat owner’s responsibilities could be divided into three principal categories: (1) the ship must be seaworthy for the intended voyage, in good repair and properly equipped and safe for those on board; (2) the ship must be provided with proper navigational aids including charts, rules and information; and, (3) the ship must be properly and competently staffed. In addition, for the owner to be at fault there must be consent, express or implied, for the operator to have the vessel at the time of the accident. The owner of the Skidmore Vessel had a strict rule that no one was to drive or be on board the vessel if they had been drinking alcohol. The operator was aware of this rule and had been refused permission to use the boat on two prior occasions when he had been drinking. On this occasion, the operator did not ask for permission to use the boat as he knew it would be refused. On the facts, the owner did not provide consent and no consent can be implied. Further, although the Skidmore Vessel was unseaworthy to the knowledge of the owner because it had the wrong propeller, the lack of consent vitiates the breach of that duty.
With respect to the liability of the owner/operator of the Atkinson Vessel, he was not keeping a proper lookout and did not instruct the other adults to keep a look out.
The apportionment of liability under the Marine Liability Act is to be handled in the same way as under the Negligence Act. The Court is to assess the degree to which each party is at fault not the degree to which each party’s fault has caused the loss. In other words, the Court is to assess the respective blameworthiness of the parties. The actions of the operator of the Skidmore Vessel are far more blameworthy than those of the owner/operator of the Atkinson Vessel. He drunkenly set out in an unseaworthy vessel with reckless indifference and disregard for the safety of others. In contrast, the negligence of the owner/operator of the Atkinson Vessel was a minor lapse of care. Therefore, liability is apportioned 80% to the operator of the Skidmore Vessel and 20% to the owner/operator of the Atkinson Vessel.
Note: The costs of the action were similarly apportioned 805 and 20%. The decision concerning costs is reported at 2016 BCSC 8.
Comment: The finding that the operator of the Atkinson vessel was 20% at fault for not keeping a proper lookout might be questioned. As is apparent from the facts, the Skidmore vessel was observed prior to the collision and efforts to alert the driver of that vessel were not successful. Under these circumstances, it is difficult to say there was not a proper lookout and, even if that was true, the lack of a proper lookout was not causative. Also, in the circumstances, one might question whether the owner of the Skidmore vessel should have been held liable as she was aware it had the wrong propeller and would not plane properly. Her lack of consent had nothing to do with the unseaworthiness of the vessel.
Note: The costs decision relating to this matter can be found at 2016 BCSC 8.