In South West Strategic Health Authority v Bay Island Voyages  EWCA Civ 708 the Court of Appeal considered the scope of the Athens Convention and the nature of the time-bar in Article 16. In coming to its decision, the Court also considered sections 5(1) and 5(2) of the Carriage by Air Act 1961.
In the main action, Dr Feest claims damages for personal injury arising out of an accident which occurred whilst she was a passenger on board The Celtic Pioneer in the Bristol Channel. Her original solicitors missed the two-year time limit for bringing claims under the Athens Convention against the carrier ('BIV'). She issued proceedings against her employer ('SWSHA') one day before the expiry of the three-year time limit under section 11 of the Limitation Act 1980. SWSHA brought a claim for contribution against BIV which was struck out by the district judge. His order was upheld on appeal.
The first issue for the Court of Appeal was whether claims for contribution are encompassed by Article 14 of the Convention which states “no action for damages for the …personal injury to a passenger… shall be brought against a carrier…otherwise than in accordance with this Convention.” On appeal, HHJ Havelock-Allan QC held that Article 14 encompassed contribution claims ( EWHC 177 QB). The Court of Appeal disagreed. The Athens Convention only claims to unify ‘certain rules relating to the carriage by sea of passengers and their luggage’. It is not a complete code and does not encompass contribution claims which are autonomous and derive from the Civil Liability (Contribution) Act 1978. In reaching this conclusion the Court looked at Australian, US and Canadian cases on the equivalent provisions under the Warsaw and Montreal Conventions.
The Court of Appeal then considered the nature of the time-bar under Article 16. The importance of this is that SWSHA would not have had a claim for contribution against BIV under the Contribution Act if the effect of Article 16 was to extinguish the cause of action rather than bar the remedy. The Court found that the effect of the words of Article 16 in the light of Financial Services Compensation Scheme Limited v Larnell (Insurances) Limited (in liquidation)  QB 808 (which considered the similarly-worded section 14B of the Limitation Act 1980) was to bar the remedy – unless there was an international consensus upon the understanding of the provision. The Court looked at the French text and concluded that the natural meaning of the French words was to bar the remedy. This understanding was also consistent with language (‘Verjaehrungsfrist’) used in the German Commercial Code. Accordingly Article 16 operated to bar the remedy and not extinguish the cause of action and therefore SWSHA’s contribution claim survived.
In reaching their conclusion on Articles 14 and 16 the Court of Appeal also looked at section 5(1) and 5(2) of the Carriage by Air Act 1961 which incorporates the Warsaw and Montreal Conventions into UK law. Of note is its comment that section 5(1) provides a time limit for actions against carrier’s servants or agents, which actions are not themselves within the scope of the Warsaw Convention.
John Ross QC and Ian Miller of 1 Chancery Lane acted for the successful appellant.