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Carriage of containers on deck

Generally deck stowage of cargo will be "unauthorised" and the carrier will be liable for loss of or damage to the goods resulting from the deck stowage unless there is a custom of the trade or port of loading to stow the specific goods on deck for the voyage in question, or unless there is an express agreement with the shipper of the goods to stow them on deck. Consequently, the carrier does not have to clause a bill of lading indicating deck stowage where it is the customary method of carrying the cargo. Turning to container carriage, the practice of carrying containers on deck on properly designed vessels is so widespread that it would satisfy the established test for customary practice in most jurisdictions. Where deck stowage is not the customary method of carrying the cargo, carriers generally use "liberty to stow on deck" clauses to exonerate them from the need to clause bills of lading for deck carriage.

In Belgium the validity of such liberty clauses has not been accepted by the courts. The relevant sections of the Belgian Maritime Code are interpreted as making the carrier responsible for damage to goods shipped on deck which are not stated on the face of the bill of lading as being carried on deck or without the consent of the shipper. The result is the same even in the case of purpose-built vessels carrying containers on deck.

The above view was confirmed in a decision given by the Belgian Cour de Cassation (Supreme Court) on 1st December 2000,1 but an obiter dictum in that decision has been welcomed by Belgian lawyers as a development in the law relating to deck carriage of containers. Basically, the court stated that a third party holder of a clean bill of lading may rely on its terms to ensure that the goods are carried under deck and consequently are not subjected to the risks of deck carriage, "unless the vessel is specifically equipped for carriage without deck".


1 OOCL EUROPE, Cour de Cassation, 1st December 2000, unreported.

The words "unless the vessel is specifically equipped for carriage without deck" appear to indicate that if a case was brought before the Cour de Cassation in which containers were carried on a vessel without a deck, even if the bill of lading did not mention deck stowage, the deck carriage would not be treated as "unauthorised".

Accordingly, this decision suggests the following consequences regarding carriage of containers on container vessels:
- Vessels without deck: deck carriage will not be treated as unauthorised even if not stated on the bill of lading.
- Vessels with a deck: if cargo is carried on deck without agreement of the shipper and without a clear statement on the bill of lading the deck carriage will be treated as unauthorised.

We are grateful to Messrs Kegels & Co, Antwerp for the above information.

Gard News is published quarterly by Gard Services AS, Arendal, Norway.