Of damages and counterfactuals — again

It’s not often that we can say “You read it first on the IISTL blog.” But it seems we may be able to, following the decision of the Court of Appeal (Males, Rose and Haddon-Cave L.JJ.) in Classic Maritime Inc v Limbungan Makmur Sdn Bhd [2019] EWCA Civ 1102.

The facts briefly recap thus. A charterer signed a CoA promising to come up with vast cargoes of Brazilian iron ore that would have netted the shipowner profits of something like $20 million. It didn’t, and in hindsight it was abundantly clear that it it never could have. The contract was subject to a force majeure clause including floods preventing performance. Floods duly materialised; but (as was held both at first instance and on appeal) the charterer couldn’t invoke the clause, since if it had never had any cargoes in the first place the floods hadn’t prevented it doing anything. Nevertheless Teare J held at first instance that even though there was breach the damages were not $20 million, but zilch (or rather nominal). His argument was that, hindsight having shown that the shipowner wouldn’t have had a right to performance even if the cargoes had been there, the value of the lost rights was zero.

We raised an eyebrow here at the idea that a defendant who hadn’t, and never could have, performed should be able to cut damages from $20 million to zero by pointing to a force majeure clause that might have protected him but in fact didn’t. The Court of Appeal has now made it clear that it thinks the same way, and substituted an award of $20 million. If (it was said) a claimant showed that a defendant had failed to perform and the defendant could not invoke any exculpatory provision, there was no reason why damages should not be substantial. The reasons behind the non-performance were irrelevant, as was the fact that had the defendant been able to perform in the first place he would have had an excuse.

In our view, despite the beguiling advocacy of the Institute’s own Simon Rainey QC, this is sensible and logical. Males LJ hit the nail on the head at [89] when he pithily pointed out that the breach was not inability or unwillingness to supply cargoes, but the simple fact that the cargoes, for whatever reason, were not there. Put that way, everything neatly falls into place. If you don’t perform your contract and can’t point to any excuse, you are liable for substantial damages. End of story.

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