Force majeure and counterfactuals

A nice force majeure issue — and one of considerable importance — came up before Teare J yesterday in Classic Maritime v Limbungan [2018] EWHC 2389 (Comm), argued by IISTL stalwart Simon Rainey QC. Imagine you conclude a contract (in this case a CoA under which you have to provide a number of iron ore cargoes) which in the event you can’t and don’t perform, and never could have performed. An exemption clause in the contract says that if you could have performed it but a force majeure event X (inundations in Brazilian iron ore mines) then occurs that stops you performing it, you are not liable for breach. Event X occurs. Are you (a) in breach of contract, (b) on the hook for substantial damages?

On (a) the answer is Yes. You promised to perform, you haven’t performed, and because you never could have performed in any case you can’t shelter behind the exemption clause.

But what about (b)? There are two ways to look at this. One is to say: this is a simple case of unexcused non-performance, and hence you must be liable to the shipowner for his lost profits on the carriage, a figure amounting to many millions. The other point of view runs thus. If, counterfactually, you could have performed but for X, the shipowner would in the event have had no claim to performance because of the exemption clause. Hence hence it’s no skin off his nose that you didn’t perform, and damages are nominal only. Teare J plumped for the second: nominals only.

This view is highly plausible and for the moment clearly represents the law. It also dovetails quite nicely with the general rule in cases such as The Golden Victory [2007] UKHL 12, [2007] 2 A.C. 353 and Bunge v Nidera [2015] UKSC 43, [2015] 2 CLC 120, that in assessing damages we take into account later events that would have taken away the right to demand performance.

But this case, or the issue in it, may go further. There is a respectable argument, that certainly can’t be dismissed summarily, which suggests a different answer. In so far as the inability to rely on a force majeure clause is due to a party’s own default, which was the case in Classic Maritime, should it be open to that party to argue that if he had acted differently he would have been able to invoke that very same clause? Suppose a force majeure clause requires notice to be given within 7 days after the force majeure event; a party prevented by force majeure nevertheless fails to give notice for 10 days, and thus loses the protection of the clause. Is it really open to the party then to say that if he had given the proper contractual 7 days notice he would have been protected by the clause, the counterparty would have had no right to demand performance, and hence damages are nominal only? I’m doubtful. And I’m equally not sure that this scenario is that different from what happened in Classic Maritime.  It’s just a thought. Whether it’s a good one, only time will tell.

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