Collision of maritime vessels ("abordage") pursuant to French law
A collision (“abordage”) is defined as a collision between two seagoing vessels or between a seagoing vessel and one or more inland vessels.
Conditions of application of the collision regime pursuant to French law
The application of the rules applicable to maritime collision (“abordage”) require that there is a collision between vessels.
Neither the location of the collision nor the purpose of the vessels is to be taken into account.
State vessels themselves are subject to the rules of collision under French law.
In international law, they are only subject to these rules if they are not exclusively assigned to a public service.
Any damage caused by eddies (wash phenomenon), provided that it is the result of a fault or a manoeuvring error, must be considered as a collision.
Collisions between tug and towed vessel or pilot boat and piloted vessel are not subject to the collision regime. Warships are also exempt from these rules.
The French Supreme Court has ruled that that the collision regime applies in case of collision between two catamarans participating in a regatta (Com. March 18, 2008, n° 06-20.558).
Who is liable in the event of maritime collision pursuant to French law?
A collision caused by the fault of a vessel obliges the latter to repair the damage caused. In the event of a common fault, each party assumes responsibility in proportion to the seriousness of its fault; if this proportion cannot be established, responsibility is shared equally.
If the collision is fortuitous and results from an event of force majeure or if the cause may not be determined, each party shall bear its own damages. In the case of a storm which does not have the characteristics of an event of force majeure, case law has sometimes accepted that the vessel at fault bears only a part of the liability incurred.
The fault of collision consists most often in a violation of the regulations, in particular the International Regulations for Preventing Collisions at Sea (RIPAM) of October 20, 1972. In this respect, the fact that the vessel is assisted by a radar is not likely to mitigate the obligations of the master.
Collision is based on a system of proven fault (French Supreme Court, Com. 5 Oct. 2010, n° 08-19.408).
Damage caused to a third party as a result of a collision is borne jointly and severally by the vessels at fault in the case of bodily injury.
An action for damages caused by a collision is brough before the commercial court, if the vessels are commercial. It is brought before the civil court when the vessel is a pleasure boat or involves vessels belonging to French public authorities. The French criminal court may also have jurisdiction when the case involves criminal offences.
The court with territorial jurisdiction may be that of the defendant's domicile, that of the place of collision, that of the port of refuge, or that of the port where the vessel was seized.
In the event of a collision between vessels of different States, if these States are parties to the International Convention of 10 May 1952, the action for civil liability may be brought before: (1) the court of the habitual residence of the defendant, or of the place where he has his place of business; (2) the court of the place of seizure; or (3) the court of the place where the collision took place, if the collision occurred in inland waters.
A second convention of 10 May 1952 reserves criminal jurisdiction in matters of collision solely to the courts of the flag State.
The applicable period of limitation is two years from the date of the event.
French Law texts governing Collision :
French Transportation Code ("Code des Transports", art. L. 4131-1, L. 4132-1, L. 5131-1 to L. 5131-7)
Brussels Convention of Sept. 3, 1910 (unification of certain rules concerning maritime salvage assistance)
Brussels Convention of 10 May 1952 (unification of certain rules relating to civil and criminal jurisdiction in respect of collision)
French Decree no. 68-65 of 19 January 1968
Landmark decisions of French courts
Com. 18 May 2022, n° 18-23.222
Com. Sept. 16, 2014, no. 13-13.880
Com. July 8, 2014, no. 13-11.506
Com. July 9, 2013, n° 12-18.504
Com. Oct. 5, 2010, n° 08-19.408
Com. March 18, 2008, n° 06-20.558