Demurrage due to delays in discharge due to damaged condition of cargo.

Alianca Navegacao E Logistica LTDA v Ameropa SA (The Santa Isabella) [2019] EWHC 3152 (Comm)

A vessel carried a cargo of white corn/maize from Mexico to South African Ports under a Synacomex form charter incorporating the Hague Rules.  On arrival the cargo was found to have suffered extensive damage and that led to a delay in discharge resulting in demurrage becoming due. Voyage charterers claimed that they were not liable for demurrage due to delays resulting from fault of the disponent owners. They alleged that the damage to the Cargo, and the delays at Durban and Richards Bay, were caused by (a) the Vessel taking the Cape Horn route rather than the Panama Canal route from Topolobampo to Durban, (b) failure by the Vessel to ventilate the Cargo in accordance with a sound system, (c) failure by the Vessel to disinfest areas of the Vessel outside of the cargo holds following loading at Topolobampo and/or (d) the Vessel proceeding to Durban at less than her warranted speed.

Andrew Henshaw QC (sitting as a Judge of the High Court) found that the owners’ obligation was to proceed on the usual and reasonable route to the discharge port and that where there were more than one such routes they were entitled to choose one rather than the other and that choice did not require owners to calculate the effect of taking that route on the cargo being carried. Both the Cape Horn route and the Panama Canal routes were usual routes to Durban and the owners committed no deviation, nor breach of art. III(2) of the Hague Rules, in taking the former. In determining which route to take the judge stated[91]:

“cargo considerations may be relevant in the elementary sense that a much longer voyage is likely to be detrimental to a perishable cargo. However, the case law does not in my view require shipowners to undertake the far more refined analysis urged by Ameropa, which would involve (in the present case) considering in detail how predictable climactic conditions on the Cape Horn and Panama Canal routes would impact on the need to ventilate the cargo and the vessel’s ability to do so.

However, the owners were found to have been in breach of art III(2) of the Hague Rules in failing properly to ventilate the cargo on the voyage and this had resulted in the delays experienced at Durban and Richards Bay. It was common ground that as owners were not bailees the legal burden of proof in showing breach of art III(2) fell on charterers. Charterers argued that the arrival of the cargo in a damaged condition  gave rise to an inference of breach. The judge rejected this, stating [52]:

“As a matter of common sense, the arrival in a seriously damaged condition of a cargo loaded in apparent good order and condition calls for an explanation, and a want of care on the part of the shipowner is a possible inference. In the present case, Alianca’s explanation is that the length and/or route of the Voyage made damage inevitable. On that basis, I am inclined to the view that it is for Ameropa to show, on the balance of probabilities, that the damage suffered in fact arose from a breach of contract by Alianca.”

Ameropa succeeded in showing that the damage did arise from a breach of contract by disponent owners.

The owners were also in breach of their obligation to proceed at the warranted speed but it was not possible to identify any particular element of damage or loss caused by that breach.

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