Duhaime's Law Dictionary

Flotilla Principle Definition:

A method of calculating the ceiling of liability in the event of loss while ships are under tow, using the tonnage of all ships in the flotilla.

Under the complex rules of maritime law, liability of a ship can be limited in a number of ways. One of the most prevalent is to limit liability based on tonnage which results in the owners of heavier ships exposed to greater liability.

But when damage occurs during towage, with ships in a flotilla arrangement, this creates a legal dilemma: where owned by different persons, but where damage occurs as a result of the towing ship, should liability be calculated based on the towing ship (usually a much smaller tug), the ship(s) being towed, or all of their tonnage combined (aggregate tonnage)?

The flotilla principle is a now mostly-ignored legal argument that the liability ceiling ought to be based on the combined tonnage of the tow and the ships being towed.

Lord Denning, in The Bramley Moore, rejected the flotilla principle as follows:

"The principle underlying limitation of liability is that the wrongdoer should be liable according to the value of his ship and no more. A small tug has comparatively small value and it should have a correspondingly low measure of liability, even though it is towing a great liner and does great damage. I agree that there is not much room for justice in this rule; but limitation of liability is not a matter of justice. It is a rule of public policy which has its origin in history and its justification in convenience."

The flotilla principle is not entirely lost to the law. It may well apply in one of two circumstances:  (1) where all the ships involved in the flotilla - towed and towing - belong to the same owner; and, (2) in the far more rare circumstance where all the ships in the flotilla contribute to the negigence causing the damage.


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