Wharfingers historically have played an important role in shipping. This is especially true in the United States where thousands of commercial wharves are situated on shorelines, navigable rivers and lakes.

“Black’s Law Dictionary” defines “wharf” as a structure on the shore of navigable waters, alongside which vessels can be brought for the sake of convenient loading or unloading. Likewise, a “wharfinger” is one that, for hire, receives merchandise on its wharf.

The status of wharfingers is often equated to that of shoreside warehousemen. If cargo is damage on the pier, the wharfinger or terminal operator may be sued on state law negligence or bailment theories. If, however, a vessel sustains grounding damage while docking, admiralty law principles will apply.

The recent M/T BT Nautilus case (85 F 3d 105) in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 3rd Circuit sheds light on some of the complex liability issues often encountered when vessels ground. The case arose from an oil spill caused by the grounding of an 811-foot tanker near a wharfinger’s facility..

Owner claims terminal operator breached duty

The vessel owner commenced an admiralty limitation proceeding and claimed the terminal operator breached its duty as a wharfinger because the vessel grounded either at the berth or in the approach to the berth. The wharfinger counterclaimed, alleging that negligent navigation caused the grounding.

The trial court found that navigating in chartered shallow waters outside the channel and berth was the sole cause of the casualty. The vessel owner unsuccessfully appealed, claiming the wharfinger’s failure to provide navigational aids and information about the terminal contributed to the grounding.

Under admiralty law, a wharfinger that permits a shipowner to use its dock is not the guarantor of the vessel’s safety. However, the wharfinger does have a duty to exercise reasonable diligence to furnish a safe berth. The vessel should be able to enter, use and leave the facility without exposure to dangers that cannot be avoided by prudent navigation. The wharfinger has an obligation to ascertain the condition of the wharf and the adjacent area. It must also warn of hidden hazards or known defects.

The wharfinger’s duty to provide a safe berth is not absolute. there Is no liability when groundings occur as a result of conditions that are apparent. Similarly, there is no duty to make every conceivable approach to the wharf safe for every type of vessel.
Neither is there a duty to ensure safe surroundings or warn of hazards in the vicinity of the wharf. The wharfinger is merely required to provide a safe means of entering and leaving the berth. Likewise, the wharfinger need not warn of existing tide, current or weather conditions.

The wharfinger is not bound to take any action with regard to a vessel’s navigation. Responsibility for proper berthing belongs to the shipowner. Choosing the time, place and method of mooring rests with the shipowner’s master. the master is also under a duty to know the vessel’s position at all times.

Rebuttable presumption of negligence

A rebuttable presumption of negligence is created in admiralty law when a vessel strikes a chartered obstruction. After a grounding, it is the duty of the vessel operator to come forward to establish that it was in the channel and did not hit a known obstruction.

The M/T BT Nautilus case illustrates that a ship’s master has a non-delegable duty to properly navigate his vessel and to thoroughly familiarize himself with the navigable waters surrounding a designated berth. The case further demonstrates that a wharfinger will be held liable to grounded vessels only if it breaches its limited legal duties.