Admiralty actions do not last forever; rather, they have prescribed limitation periods, which often vary depending on the type of claim. If a claim is not brought within the time prescribed by the relevant law or contract, a party with an otherwise valid claim will generally lose its right of action on that claim. In order to avoid such a scenario, claimants must take active steps to enforce their maritime claim in court once it arises (or soon afterwards.) For certain claims, the prescribed limitation period may be extended.
A. Collision claims
Parties which have a claim or lien against an erring ship or its owners which arose from a collision caused by that ship must commence judicial proceedings within two (2) years from the date on which the claim arose (i.e., the date of the accident).
Collision claims normally include: damage or loss to a ship, its cargo or freight or any property on board; or loss of life or personal injuries suffered by a person on board.
Despite the above, a court of competent jurisdiction may extend this prescribed two-year limitation period on such conditions as it deems fit. In order to benefit from this extension, a claimant must satisfy the court that, before the limitation period, it had no reasonable opportunity to arrest the defendant ship:
B. Maritime liens
A maritime lien is a privileged right or claim against a vessel or other maritime property which attaches to a vessel permanently, regardless of a change in the vessel's ownership or possession. Maritime liens consist of claims for: the wages of a crew member or master; a master's disbursements; loss of life or personal injury arising from the direct operation of a ship; salvage, wreck removal and contribution in general average; and ports, canals and other waterways, dues and pilotage dues.
A maritime lien extinguishes one (1) year from the date on which the claims secured by the lien arises. This limitation period would not apply if the ship was arrested and the arrest led to proceedings for a forced sale before the limitation period's expiry.
C. Salvage claims
Where a party provides assistance or helps to recover another party's ship or cargo in peril at sea, it may bring an action to enforce payment for the services rendered. In order to benefit from a salvage claim, judicial or arbitral proceedings must be commenced within two (2) years from the date on which the salvage operations were concluded. However, the court may extend the limitation period if the claimant can show that it was impossible to arrest the vessel assisted or salvaged in Nigeria.
Further, at any time during the limitation period, a party against which a claim for payment is made may, by a declaration to the claimant, extend the limitation period, thereby entitling arbitral or judicial proceedings to be commenced after the two-year period.
D. Cargo claims
The Hague Rules apply by reason of statute to the outward bound carriage of goods from a Nigerian port. The rules also apply where parties have by their contract incorporated it to govern their carriage transaction irrespective of the port of origin.
Under the Hague Rules, a party that claims for a loss, damage or short landing of its goods will lose its claim if it fails to commence an action in court within one (1) year. The relevant date for calculating the time period is the date in which the goods were discharged by the vessel (and not the date in which the vessel arrived at the port or the date on which the cause of action arose.)
Where a claimant's goods are lost or damaged on account of the negligence, fault, or failure of the carrier in its duties, the carrier will not be entitled to rely on the one-year rule to shield it from liability thereof.
E. Other claims
For other maritime claims whose limitation periods are not specifically prescribed in any enactment or law, a general three-year (3) time bar (which begins from the date on which the cause of action arises) applies.
All maritime claims are time bound by nature, and claimants must take this into account in deciding when to institute an action. Even where settlement talks are ongoing between parties, claimants are advised to institute a claim concurrently in court before the limitation period expires, as time does not cease to run against a claim simply because parties are engaged in negotiations. Ultimately, it is always safest to err on the side of caution.
It is necessary to also add that in as much as arresting of ships are peculiar to admiralty actions, it is expected that one should cautiously and properly apply for them, considering the huge loss that accompanies such claims, the time that may be expended on such cases and the economic effect which frivolous arrest can have on ship owners.