County Court Jurisdiction in Sea-Based Disease Claims: Meeks v BP Shipping and Fyffes (Unreported, 2018)

When industrial disease claims are issued against multiple defendants in the County Court and some of the defendants are ship-owners, it is common practice for sea-based defendants to be treated as quasi land-based. Pursuant to CPR 19.2(2)(a), parties are ‘added’ to proceedings and the County Court has jurisdiction to determine matters in dispute in relation to all defendants.

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What happens when claimants commence County Court proceedings against sea-based defendants in the absence of land-based co-defendants, however?

The recent case of Meeks v BP Shipping and Fyffes (Unreported, 2018) draws attention an issue associated with claimant solicitors applying the Civil Procedure Rules routinely and, in this instance, erroneously.[i]

Here, the claimant, who was employed as a ship carpenter between 1974 and 1979, alleged that he had developed noise-induced hearing loss (NIHL) in the course of employment with 2 shipping companies. Purported exposure to injurious noise levels occurred while out at sea.

As such, the defendants contended that the claimant should have brought an Admiralty claim, in accordance with CPR 61.2(1)(a)(v), which refers to specific claims that fall under the jurisdiction of the Admiralty division of the High Court.

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Section 20(2)(f) of the Supreme Court Act 1981 refers to claims for personal injury sustained as a result of a ship-owner’s negligence.

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Despite the defendants’ pleadings that the present claim fell within the scope of s.20(2)(f), the claimant refused to discontinue the existing County Court action and start new proceedings in the Admiralty Court.

Thus, the defendants made an application to strike-out the claim.

At the application hearing, the claimant opposed the application on 3 grounds.

Firstly, that s.20(2)(f) did not apply to this case.

In the alternative, that the defendants, in disputing the County Court’s jurisdiction, should have made an application, under CPR 11.1(a) or (b), within 14 days of filing an acknowledgement of service.

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Finally, that striking out the claim would be a draconian sanction, when the court has powers of case management, under CPR 3, which allow for a matter to be transferred to the appropriate court, e.g. the Admiralty Court.

Taking each submission in turn, the judge found in favour of the defendants and struck out the claim. However, QOCS disapplication was unsuccessful, meaning that they were unable to recover their costs from the claimant.

In respect of the claimant’s first submission, the judge found that the claim constituted personal injury arising out of the management of a ship and thus engaged s.20(2)(f) of the 1981 Act. On the second issue, the judge considered that a Part 11 application was unnecessary, since the County Court had no jurisdiction to hear the claim. Further, in regards to the third submission, the County Court judge, having struck out the claim for lack of jurisdiction, should not have the power to make a secondary decision to transfer the case to the Admiralty Court.

Although this is not a binding judgment, it is an illustration of strict interpretation of civil procedure which has caught out claimant solicitors and resulted in a claim being struck out rather than continued or transferred to the more appropriate court.

Defendants should be wary of inattentive claimant solicitors commencing County Court proceedings on the assumption that the court can exercise its jurisdiction in all industrial disease cases. Plainly, the ruling in Meeks evinces that it cannot.

 

[i] ‘Strike out application success in Admiralty personal injury claim commenced in the County Court’ (5 November 2019 Hill Dickinson) <https://www.hilldickinson.com/insights/articles/strike-out-application-success-admiralty-personal-injury-claim-commenced-county> accessed 21 January 2019.