PROPORTIONATE LIABILITY REVISITED
Professor Doug Jones AO, RFD, IJ, BA, LLM, CCIArb, FRI Arb *
International Commercial and Investor/State Arbitrator and an International Judge of the Singapore International Commercial Court
2020 marked 50 years since the collapse of the Westgate Bridge over the Yarra River, a major disaster that occurred in Melbourne, Australia. The collapse, which occurred during construction of the bridge, saw 2,000 tonnes of steel and concrete give way, claiming the lives of 35 construction workers and engineers. This led to the Royal Commission into the Failure of the West Gate Bridge. In its Report released in 1971, the Commission found that although the particular action precipitating the collapse was the removal of a number of bolts, the true sources of failure lay further back with the designers, Freeman Fox & Partners, and contractors, World Services Construction and John Holland. 1 The designers had failed to give proper and careful regard to the process of structural design and failed to properly check the safety of proposals put forward by the original contractors. As a result, the margins of safety for the bridge were inadequate. The second cause of the disaster was the unusual method proposed by the contractor for the erection of two spans. Successful execution required more than usual care. Neither contractor appeared to have appreciated the need for such great care while the designers failed in their duty to prevent the contractor from using dangerous procedures. The Commission recommended that, before construction recommenced, a thorough check be made of the whole design by an independent authority. 2 Construction resumed in 1972 and after 10 years of construction it was finally completed in 1978. 3
In March 2015, a proposal was presented to the Victorian Government for effectively a duplication of the crossing of the Yarra River, this time by tunnel. The project involves a widening of the West Gate Freeway, boring twin tunnels under Yarraville, and constructing a bridge over the Maribyrnong River to provide a second river crossing. 4 This proposal
* Sydney Arbitration Chambers, 139 Macquarie St, Sydney, Australia. Toronto Arbitration Chambers, Bay Adelaide Centre, 900-333 Bay Street, Toronto, Canada M5H 2R2. London Chambers: Atkin Chambers, 1 Atkin Building, Gray’s Inn, London, WC1R 5AT, UK. www.dougjones.info. 8th Pinsent Masons Lecture given on 17 November 2020. The author gratefully acknowledges the assistance in the preparation of this paper of Brendan Ofner, Legal Assistant, Christina Han, Associate and Sara Pacey, Associate.
1 Royal Commission into the Failure of the West Gate Bridge (July 1971), 9.
2 Ibid .
3 Silva, K, “The West Gate Bridge collapsed 50 years ago. Can similar tragedies be prevented?”, ABC (online, 15 October 2020) https://www.abc.net.au/news/2020-10-15/bridge-safety-50-years-on-from-westgate-tragedy/12740628 (last accessed 6 April 2021).
4 “Project benefits”, West Gate Tunnel Project, https://westgatetunnelproject.vic.gov.au/about/project-benefits (last accessed 6 April 2021).
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