The Athens Convention is notorious for catching out PI practitioners with its current two year limitation period* for accidents at sea. Indeed the few reported cases on it are mainly concerned with whether it is possible to extend time (Higham v Stena) or whether a cause of action exists outside the Convention (Norfolk v My Travel) – both resulted from a failure to issue in time.
Judgment is shortly to be handed down in a case which may make life even more complicated for the personal injury practitioner. The issue is whether Article 16 of the Athens Convention extinguishes the cause of action or whether it bars the remedy. This fine distinction rarely troubles most personal injury practitioners but it has historically been a feature of our, and other, common law jurisdictions. In the UK we have, with exceptions, a system of limitation which stops a litigant accessing a remedy on the expiry of a period of time. Exceptions include claims relating to land and defective products. Other jurisdictions have a system of prescription which means that when time expires, the cause of action is extinguished.
Why does this matter? Because under section 1(3) of the Civil Liability Contribution Act 1978 a party may claim a contribution from another tortfeasor who is liable for the same damage, except where the cause of action against that other tortfeasor has been extinguished. Where that is the case the contribution claim cannot proceed after the expiry of the time limit and there is no 2 year limitation period under section 10 of the Limitation Act 1980.
In The Celtic Pioneer the judge heard arguments on the third party claim last week. The claimant was employed by the defendant and was seconded to another organisation. Whilst with that organisation she was injured on a boat trip. Her (former) solicitors missed the 2 year limitation period against the boat company and she sued the defendant (a strategic health authority). The defendant sought to bring in the carrier which successfully struck out the defendant’s claim on the basis that the cause of action was extinguished by Article 16 of the Athens Convention. The appeal was heard last week.
The twist is that Article 16 is couched in the language of being a ‘Time-bar’ to an ‘action being brought’ which contrasts starkly with the equivalent provisions of the Warsaw and Montreal Conventions which refer to the cause of action being ‘extinguished’. The defendant argued that regardless of the language of a ‘time-bar’, Article 16 extinguishes the cause of action on the expiry of the 2 year limitation period.
Claimants may miss the 2 year time limit but there is the potential that this judgment will catch out defendants wanting to bring third party proceedings and not realising that they must also bring their claims within 2 years of the accident. Indeed the same logic would apply to other international conventions given the force of law in the UK. Watch this space for the result...
(John Ross QC and Ian Miller were counsel for the Appellant in The Celtic Pioneer).
*The limitation period may technically be suspended or interrupted up to a limit of 3 years under Article 16.3 or extended by agreement under Article 16.4F
Photograph: Ian Britton FreeFoto.com