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Brace for impact: Commercial Court gives judgment on Norwegian helicopter crash

On 17 May 2021, the BVI Commercial Court handed down its written judgment on a negligence claim concerning a helicopter which crashed into the sea while attempting to land on a superyacht in Norway. Harneys, together with Matthew Reeve and Joseph England of Quadrant Chambers, acted for the successful Claimants (the First Claimant insured and the Second Claimant Insurer). The judgment highlights the technical expertise of the BVI Commercial Court in dealing with specialist areas of law.

On 10 May 2017, the First Claimant’s AS-350 helicopter was approaching the helideck of the superyacht “M/Y Bacarella”, owned by the Defendant (a BVI company), which was waiting in Bergen Harbour in Norway. As it approached the superyacht and just a few feet from touch-down, an unsecured fabric cover blew up and into the helicopter’s main rotor disk. The helicopter quickly became uncontrollable and crashed into the sea within a matter of seconds. Thankfully, there was no loss of life, however, the helicopter (valued at over £2 million) was completely destroyed. The accident was widely reported in the international media, with several videos of it being taken by passers-by.

On 26 April 2018, the Claimants issued proceedings in the BVI for negligence on the grounds that the Master and crew of the Bacarella had failed to properly prepare the helideck for landing and in particular failed to secure the fabric cover.

Whilst the Defendant ultimately admitted primary liability in failing to secure the cover shortly before trial, it maintained its defence of contributory negligence. The Defendant also sought to limit its liability based on the size of the vessel pursuant to the BVI Merchant Shipping Act 2001 (as amended) (MSA).

The trial took place remotely between 19 and 28 April 2021.

The Judgment

Mr Justice Jack delivered his ex tempore judgment just two days after the conclusion of trial on 29 April 2021, holding that there had been no contributory negligence on the part of the Claimants. In particular, the Judge found that the pilot had undertaken extensive training and rejected the notion that the helicopter had hovered too long on its approach. He also noted that the emergency landing was appropriate; had the helicopter crashed into the superyacht (as opposed to the sea) this could have caused far greater damage and risked the lives of the yacht crew and those in the helicopter. Above all, it was found that there was no failure in piloting and accordingly no reduction in damages as a result of this was justified. The Judge acknowledged the quick action of pilot Quentin Smith, which had saved the lives of the two other people on board the helicopter.

In relation to whether the Defendant was able to limit their liability pursuant to the BVI MSA, the Judge ruled that there was a direct connection with the operation of the vessel so as to allow a limitation of liability.

Brace for impact: Commercial Court gives judgment on Norwegian helicopter crash