Is it possible to sue a Classification Society?

Grieg is suing DNV-GL for negligence. Is it possible to win such a case?:

I was of the impression that all Classification Societies had enough waiver in any agreement and on any certificate issue to where they would be immune to any claim; I.e. “We are not responsible for anything we do or say”.

When an ABS man appeared before the Canadian Royal Commission investigating the loss of the Ocean Ranger he said that just because they had approved the Operations Manual did not mean that it was any good, and got away with it, and the same classification society was unsuccessfully sued by the Spanish Government after the Prestige accident. So not much hope then.

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The law is always evolving. Just because some group hasn’t been held liable in the past, it does not mean that they won’t be in the future. In the English common law countries, like the US, the law evolves as cases are decided by judges.

Many years ago, US courts routinely upheld exculpatory clauses in contracts. The theory was that the parties are free to contract to assign risk. Now, courts generally reject consumer exculpatory clauses as contrary to public policy. The clearly established trend is toward reduced enforcement of exculpatory clauses.

With class societies now acting as third-party organizations performing regulatory functions on behalf of governments, there are strong public policy considerations that favor holding class societies accountable for their failures. It’s probably just a question of time.


If Class isn’t doing their job on behalf of a government, I can see it as the fault of Class. But if a company like Grieg has a problem with the way Class is doing things for their own vessels there’s nothing stopping them from conducting their business to a higher standard. It doesn’t make sense to me for an operator to sue Class. When construction standards for tankers were relaxed by Class, and ships were breaking up because they didn’t have enough steel in them, there was nothing stopping the ship builders and ship buyers from recognizing and fixing the problem themselves. Class sets the minimum standard: if you don’t like it, do better.

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I don’t think it’s very clear exactly what DNV is supposed to have neglected. If the problems are due to production issues, I get how they’re responsible for having failed to notice it during inspection. However, the mention of severe cavitation damage makes it sound like a design flaw; Were they expected to double-check the designer’s CFD work? I suspect that the problems with cracks around the rudder shafts will also be traced back to cavitation, but inasmuch as they have correctly analyzed the structure as per the Classification Notes, I don’t see how they could be held liable if there is a problem with the standard itself. You can’t very well absolve yourself of responsibility for your design just because it makes class.

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Yes, you can sue a classification society, and there is case law, but liabilities are very complicated. To be successful in case law, as an owner, you almost have to prove that you were in communication with class to resolve an unseaworthy condition at the time of suffering the loss and their guidance led to continued coverage. It is nearly impossible to win a tort claim on retroactive grounds, even if a surveyor issued a class certificate and the vessel did not have a certain fixture, meet a standard, or regulation where a loss was suffered years later. Ultimately, law recognizes seaworthiness as an owner liability with very little leeway.

We purchased a vessel which was in it’s 5 year inspection high and dry when we actually purchased it. A year later we found a weeping shaft log seal. We removed and our shaft company found epoxy had been used to build up the shaft where the seal rides.

Then this Class society said we absolutely could not repair the shaft by welding( An accepted practice by ABS and other class societies. )

We found the “epoxy job” on the repair order to shaft during the previous 5 year inspection.

We agreed to build a complete new tail shaft, they had to witness pour, coupon, all metallurgy testing etc. There was only one “approved” foundry in the USA.

Cost was near150k. We threatened law suit because the class society had just approved the repair using epoxy or was at minimum aware of it.

The cost was deducted from our bill for all the class services during this refit.

We didn’t actually sue them but the lawyers letter and circumstances was enough for them to simply pay for the near 150k.

It’s a small amount but, I believe it’s very possible to sue a class society and win.


In that case, much easier since it’s a billing dispute (more of a contract liability versus a tort claim) to a certain extent, and not that advantageous for the class society to spend twice that on legal fees as they are put in a lose-lose situation and forced to eat that one. It would be more difficult if the initial shaft repair resulted in considerable loss, like flooding the engine room, and trying to hold class liable for that reason.

The shaft log was oil bath with about 250 gallons of oil in a head tank. The (leak) was petroleum oil into the sea. I’m pretty sure this fell into “tort law” in our approach.

The monies they deducted were not the actual cost of witnessing and what not of the shaft.

It was for other witnessing of works like hull plating replacements, Thruster installations, re-power, etc.

I can’t be positive as I was a document, document, document port engineer n the middle of a re-fit and it was about 16 years ago. I wasn’t even deposed.

We were not fined for oil loss and hauled the vessel immediately. We were also a yard. Downtime, drydock, manpower, and repair would be the immediate costs that I am aware of to prevent an environmental fine.

Shaft seals normally make contact with a bronze collar on the shaft and at the five year docking a spacer is used to position the seals on a different area of the wear strip. After 15 years the bronze collar is replaced.

I think the rule is maximum 10 times the fee for the bad inspection.

didnt the surveyor of the Prestige go to prison?

Not according to the Wikipedia entry. ABS was sued by Spain, but the court found that ABS isn’t responsible for pollution because it is a ‘person,’ and that the court doesn’t have jurisdiction because the US isn’t a signatory to the convention that governs this kind of thing. A Spanish court tried to determine the guilt of a large number of other parties, including the officers in the port and on the ship and the insurers, but didn’t go after Class.

was the Erika and RiNA surveyor

Not as far as I can see. The EU made a series of laws in response to the Erika and Prestige failures, which (in part) are meant to hold Class accountable. In truth, Class Societies probably are the cause of both of those failures: they didn’t know how much steel was needed for a skookum ship. So they kept cutting down on requirements to allow their members to be more profitable. They just kept going until they had enough failures that the public got angry. The tipping point between skookum and profit is…or was dependant on how angry people got about it.

Sure, you can sue a Class Society. . .but win? Good luck.

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they never got the prestige owner in court did they?