Lloyd's Maritime and Commercial Law Quarterly


The Van Gogh

The nature of the tort of conversion is easy to state as a general principle: it is the denial or usurpation of another’s possessory interest in goods.1 Thus, conversion is constituted by an act which manifests an unjustified assertion of dominion over goods and which is inconsistent with the possessory rights of the person who is entitled to them. It is a tort of strict liability, so the fact that the act in question may be committed without moral fault is no defence.2
Less simple than stating the nature of conversion is identifying which acts fall within its parameters. It is a slippery tort, and its boundaries evade precise delineation. Clearly, the physical handling of goods by taking, destroying or unjustifiably detaining them in defiance of the person entitled to them is conduct amounting to conversion, as is the transfer, or disposition, of goods without the authority to do so. In such circumstances, a finding of conversion will generally be straightforward enough. However, the law is not always clear in cases where there has been an unjustified assertion of a right to possession or control of goods, but no physical dealing with them has occurred. Does such conduct amount to conversion?
A recent case, Club Cruise Entertainment and Travelling Services Europe BV v. Department for Transport (The Van Gogh) 3 illustrates the problem. The case concerned a cruise ship, the Van Gogh, which arrived in the port of Harwich. Outbreaks of norovirus, an unpleasant but generally mild illness, had previously occurred in the ship, and a process of cleaning and sanitation was undertaken in the port. During this process, the ship was inspected by officials, including Captain Rudge, a principal surveyor from the Maritime Coastguard Agency (MCA), an agency of the defendant. He issued a detention notice to the master of the Van Gogh, prohibiting her from going to sea or on a voyage until the MCA released her. The ground stated for the detention was that the ship failed to comply with statutory requirements. Two days later, after a reinspection, Captain Rudge lifted the detention order and released the ship. The validity of the notice was subsequently challenged by the claimant shipowner and Flaux J, in a trial of preliminary issues, held that the notice was defective for non-conformity with the relevant regulations and thus



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