Carriage contracts mean what they say, OK?

Open any contract textbook at the chapter on exception clauses, and you will come across a long list of cases on the restrictive interpretation of such clauses, saying that (for example) they will not lightly exonerate a party from the consequences of his own fault in the absence of clear words; that if a clause could cover both negligence and strict liability it will presumptively only cover the latter; that ambiguities will be construed contra proferentem; and so on.

As usual, however, things are not as they seem. No doubt such matters have formed the stuff of contract lectures and provided law professors with enjoyment for as long as most of us can remember. Outside academia, however, commercial lawyers today can pretty safely treat them as a mere empty ritual incantation and then go on quietly to ignore them.

The latest demonstration of this point comes in a case decided six weeks ago but only just reported, Aprile SpA v Elin Maritime Ltd [2019] EWHC 1001 (Comm). On the facts as assumed, steel fabrications were carried on deck from Thailand to Algeria under a straight bill stating that they were so carried and continuing: “ The Carrier shall in no case be responsible for loss of or damage to the cargo, howsoever arising prior to loading into or after discharge from the Vessel or while the cargo is in the charge of another Carrier, nor in respect of deck cargo or live animals.” The cargo did not arrive in one piece, and cargo — or its insurers — wanted to bring a claim. Faced with the unpromising terms of the bill of lading (which was unaffected by the Hague Rules because of the statement of deck carriage), they argued, with a touching hope, that for all its wideness the exemption did not cover any damage caused by negligence or unseaworthiness.

The deputy judge, Stephen Hofmeyr QC, was having none of it. In line with a series of recent authorities such as Persimmon Homes Ltd v Ove Arup & Partners [2017] EWCA Civ 373, he held that the exception clause had to be read, like any other contract term, with a view to seeing what it would mean to a reasonable businessperson, taking into account the circumstances surrounding the contract. He saw no reason to interpret the words “howsoever arising” as meaning anything other than what they said, or to regard claims alleging negligence or unseaworthiness as raising any special issue in this connection. He expressed the view that Langley J had been right to suggest as much in The Imvros [1999] 1 Lloyd’s Rep 848, and saw no justification in criticisms later made of that case. Equally he joined in the general tendency to sideline Canada SS v R [1952] AC 192 and its suggestions for cutting down the presumptive meaning of clauses that did not mention negligence in so many words. The argument that there might be strict liability as a common carrier and that the exception clause might have been intended to be limited to that he treated with the disbelief it richly deserved.

In short, in carriage as elsewhere commercial contracts mean what they say; complex rules of interpretation, and outdated presumptions about exoneration for fault, have little part to play. And rightly so. Carriers and cargo interests alike are keen on English law and jurisdiction precisely because they know their contracts will be read in a common sense and businesslike way. The deputy judge here needs, if one may say so, to be commended for approaching this case with a realistic and hard-headed attitude, and not disappointing them.

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