This case, heard in the Singapore High Court, concerns the collision of two bulk carriers in Singapore waters on 16 May 2014. The plaintiffs owned the Meghna Princess (‘MP’), a single screw bulk carrier built in 1995 and laden with 46k metric tons of cement clinker from Vietnam, destined for Bangladesh. The ship owned by the defendants, the Dream Star (‘DS‘), was younger, larger, and carrying 78k metric tons of coal. Both ships had fully functioning navigational equipment and the weather and visibility was good.
A VHF (‘Very High Frequency’) conversation took place between the vessels at 12.25 pm – the MP requested the DS to slow down, to allow the DS to pass to astern as the MP accelerated to join the lane of the Singapore Strait Traffic Separation Scheme (TSS). The MP then changed her mind and communicated that she was reducing speed, asking DS to speed up so that she could pass the bow of MP- a course of action agreed to by DS. The collision took place within minutes.
The art of communication is the language of leadership.” James Humes
The plaintiffs alleged that the DS struck the MP whereas MP maintained that both vessels collided into each other. Either way, both sides alleged multiple breaches of the COLREGS (‘International Regulations for Preventing Collisions at Sea’). There was a dispute on whether the ‘crossing rule’ or ‘overtaking rule’ applied, and therefore which vessel was the ‘give-way’ vessel. This affects the apportionment of liability between the parties, and the degree to which each vessel was at fault in causing the collision. There was no allegation, by either side, that the weather, wind and tidal conditions at and before the collision affected the navigation of either vessel.
The trial was on the issue of liability alone and was held before Mrs Justice Belinda Ang Saw Ean. She noted to the court that neither case had been presented well and that there was ‘evidential deficiency’. She observed that with both vessels being of different size and weight, and with one entering and one leaving port, the court would have found it helpful to have had information on the manoeuvrability of each vessel. This would include stopping distances and turning characteristics at different speeds with regard to each vessels’ load. No evidence of this kind was brought before the court.
After much deliberation, it was held that the liability between the parties would be 70:30 in favour of the defendant DS, as the MP was more to blame. She had not kept a proper lookout and her automatic radar plotting aid was not being used to find or track DS. She initiated VHF communication, giving contradictory instructions to DS which increased the risk of collision. It would have been preferable to follow COLREGS and rely on good navigation and reliable seamanship throughout. Although the primary fault lay with MP, DS contributed to the risk of collision by also failing to keep a proper lookout and not being responsive to the developing close quarters situation.
Both sides had called expert witnesses and the Judge commented that the navigational situations were both within the competence of the experts, but ‘How the experts conducted themselves in the witness box is an entirely different matter’.
The particular circumstances of this case involved one of the expert witnesses having also acted as the marine casualty investigating officer to determine the facts of the collision. Whilst this does not in itself matter (so long as the expert’s previous role is disclosed), the two roles are distinct. If he is called on to testify as investigating officer he is treated as a witness of fact. Having been called as expert witness, it was patently wrong of him to refer to what the crew had told him in his earlier role as if it were fact, in his testimony as expert witness. He had blurred his two separate roles and made use of hearsay information as a factual base for an expert opinion. Further, he denied that the VHF conversation had taken place, even though they were played twice in court and the transcripts read to him.
The Judge emphasised the duties and responsibilities of the expert witness:- Expert evidence presented to the court should be, and be seen to be, the independent product of the expert uninfluenced as to form or content by the exigencies of litigation;
An expert’s opinion must be objective and unbiased. He should neither attempt nor be seen to be an advocate of or for a party’s cause; and An expert witness should state the facts or assumptions on which his opinion is based. He should not omit to consider material facts which detract from his concluded opinion.
Above all, the independence and impartiality of an expert witness are paramount as [their] duty is to assist the court to come to a decision, irrespective of who instructed or called them to testify as the expert. Link: The ‘Dream Star’  SGHC 220
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