• Ship Owner's Liability for the Use of Non-Approved Electronic Charts
  • March 19, 2010 | Author: Alan M. Weigel
  • Law Firm: Blank Rome LLP - New York Office
  • The Electronic Chart Display and Information System (“ECDIS”) has unquestionably improved the practice and safety of navigation. Compared with paper charts, paperless navigation has reduced overall costs and the workload on navigating officers. Most importantly, ECDIS has reduced the rate of navigation related accidents. Some crew and vessel owners, however, have attempted to reap the benefit of paperless navigation without using fully approved ECDIS. While this option may seem to be an attractive way to further reduce costs, it can subject an owner to increased liability if the non-approved electronic chart system is implicated in a navigation casualty.

    The Legal Requirements for Charts and ECDIS

    The lack of proper charts is an unseaworthy condition that can preclude a vessel owner from limiting its liability for damages. Courts have found vessels unseaworthy when their owners have failed to provide up-to-date charts or charts with the correct scale.

    Chart carriage requirements are contained in SOLAS Chapter V, which United States courts have found has the status of general maritime law. Chapter V, Regulation 2, requires that charts must be “issued by or on the authority of a Government, authorized hydrographic office or other relevant government institution.” Regulation 27 requires that charts and nautical publications, such as sailing directions and other publications necessary for the intended voyage, shall be adequate and up-to-date.

    Chart carriage requirements may be met by ECDIS. To satisfy the requirement of Chapter V Regulation 19, the ECDIS must be type approved, utilize “official” Electronic Navigational Charts (“ENC”) conforming with International Hydrographic Organization standards, and must meet the International Maritime Organization (“IMO”) ECDIS Performance Standards. The vessel must also be provided with a back-up arrangement for the ECDIS, which can be an “appropriate folio of paper charts” or an electronic back-up approved by the relevant maritime administration.

    Liability for Non-Approved Electronic Chart Systems

    SOLAS Chapter V chart requirements are not met by Electronic Chart Systems (“ECS”) that do not comply with the IMO Performance Standard, even if using “official” ENCs. Similarly, an ECDIS using non-government electronic chart data also does not meet SOLAS requirements. If a vessel has an ECS or non-government data, its SOLAS V chart carriage requirements can only be met by the use of a normal folio of paper charts.

    Crew training and qualification can be significant issues with ECS and non-government chart data. An owner who fails to man his vessel with crew properly trained and competent to operate the ECS can face the same liability issues as for failing to provide adequate charts. Timely and accurate chart updates also can be a significant issue with an ECS or with non-government chart data, and it also can be the source of an unseaworthiness determination in casualty litigation.

    A non-type-approved ECS can be used for situation awareness, but not for navigation. Navigational use of an ECS or an ECDIS with non-government chart data would normally result in a major non-conformity during an ISM audit or a Port State Control deficiency. It may, however, be difficult to tell the difference between an approved EDCIS and a non-approved ECS. Thus, it may not be obvious to an auditor, inspector or even the ships own navigation team that a vessel is using the ECS for navigation, especially where the vessel also is maintaining its chart portfolio. If a navigation casualty occurs while the vessel is navigating with an ECS or with non-government data on its ECDIS, it may be difficult for the owner to demonstrate that it exercised due diligence to make the vessel seaworthy and it thus may not be entitled to limit its liability for any damages that result. An owner of a vessel carrying an ECS must, therefore, establish clear procedures on the use of the ECS and must ensure that navigation is still carried out using paper charts.


    ECDIS has the potential to improve safety. Using non-type-approved systems, however, may raise liability issues. Watch officers need to be made aware of the types of systems they have on board and of the operational and legal limitations when using non-approved equipment. Owners with non-approved systems on their vessels must ensure that SOLAS chart carriage requirements continue to be met and that navigation is done on paper charts.