Sunken tug boat owners ordered to pay £400,000 clean-up costs after judge dismisses damages claim against MoD

Lady Wise
Lady Wise

The owners of a tug boat who sued the Ministry of Defence for “negligence” after the vessel sank having been attached to an MoD buoy have had the damages claim dismissed and been ordered to pay the more than £400,000 for the cost of the clean-up operation.

Stuart White,72, and David Symon, 66, sued the Queen’s Harbourmaster - for whom the MoD is responsible in law – for £150,000 over the way it responded when the boat, the Golden Cross, became detached from the buoy in Loch Goil following a storm and started to sink.

However, a judge in the Court of Session ruled that the defender had acted reasonably and granted a counterclaim for the expenses involved in the removal of the wreck.

Lady Wise heard that the vessel, which was built on the Clyde in 1955 and was the last of her class, broke loose from her moorings in Loch Long and ran aground on Ardentinny Bay in April 2013.

The Golden Cross was towed from the beach at Ardentinny to a buoy in Loch Goil, but on 3 May 2013 she started sinking.

Despite efforts to save it, the boat was beached on the bank of the loch and could not be salvaged.

Approximately 1.5 tonnes of oil was spilled which had to be cleaned up before it was taken away to be broken up in December 2013.

The pursuers raised an action claiming that the Queen’s Harbourmaster (QHM) and the Deputy QHM Ian White failed to exercise reasonable care in the decisions taken when the Golden Cross was found to be sinking.

They argued that the defender failed to check the boat and that when it developed a list, the MoD was only made aware of the threat of its sinking by a fisherman.

According to the pursuers, the defender ought to have attempted to reduce the water levels, which would have enabled the vessel to taken to a pier for repair, and they sought damages for that alleged negligence. 

But the defender disputed that reasonable care was not taken, arguing that had no action been taken the boat could have stopped Royal Navy submarines from accessing the waters.

The defender counterclaimed for the cost of the operation to control pollution and re-float the vessel after she was put ashore.

Dismissing the action, the judge ruled that the pursuers failed to demonstrate that the actions of the defender on 3 and 4 May were not reasonable. 

In a written opinion, Lady Wise said: “It is not sufficient for the pursuers to make suggestions of other possibilities that, with unlimited resources and more time, might also have been reasonable options.

“The considerations taken into account by Ian White were all factors that he required to weigh in the balance. He did. Not have an absolute duty to save the vessel.

“He did everything that could reasonably have been expected of him in the circumstances. The pursuers’ case accordingly fails.”

She added: “The defender has counterclaimed for the cost of the clean-up operation, which amounted to £441,511.60, with interest thereon at the rate of 8% a year from 4 May 2013 until payment.

“No submission was made on behalf of the pursuers that the counterclaim should fail even if the principal action did not succeed.

“The counterclaim is based on section 15 of the Dockyard Ports Regulation Act 1865, which allows the QHM to recover from the owner any expenses involved in the removal of a wreck.

“There was effectively no dispute that, in the event that the actings of the QHM and his deputy had been reasonable, there was an entitlement to these sums.”

© Scottish Legal News Ltd 2020

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