Exceptions to the Running of Laytime- “Wording” is the Key (Bad Weather?)- London Arbitration 21/19

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In commercial contracts, exclusion clauses are often construed narrowly. In the context of voyage charterparties, this could create significant difficulties for charterers who attempt to rely on an exclusion clause to stop the running of laytime or demurrage.

In the contract in question, it was expressly stipulated that … if … loading… [was] … suspended: [a] due to bad weather (including… storms, high winds…) or [b] for other reasons not attributable to charterers or their shippers/receivers, laytime and demurrage would not count.

At the port of loading, the laytime period started on 25 August. A tropical storm was approaching to the loading port but loading continued and the terminal indicated at 13.00 hours on 26 August that there was no present intention to shut-down due to the fact that the approaching hurricane’s land fall remained uncertain. However, at 15.30 hours on the same day, the terminal stopped loading and the vessel was advised to leave for anchorage. The terminal informed the vessel that they had no alternative but to vacate the vessel as weather conditions would make anchorages scarce and they had to consider the safety of their docks, fleet and terminal. The port remained closed for the next few days and on 29 August the vessel re-berthed and completed loading. The main legal issue was whether laytime stopped when the vessel was ordered off the berth.

It was held that the laytime was not suspended when the vessel left the berth on 26 August as for laytime to be suspended under a clause of this nature it was necessary to show that time was lost due to bad weather. The tribunal observed that it was impossible to calibrate the imminence and nature of bad weather when the vessel sailed away on 26 August but was adamant that the facts did not suggest that loading as suspended due to bad weather. What led tribunal to this conclusion was the fact that the hurricane was still at least 2 days away and there was no immediate danger to shipping. The terminal’s decision to close the facility was based on its desire to ensure the safety of its barges and there was also concern that vessels would find it difficult to find anchorages if they stayed any longer in the terminal.

However, the charterers managed to convince the tribunal that the running of laytime was suspended for “reasons not attributable to charterers or their shippers/receivers”. They got the decision of the tribunal in their favour on this point as they successfully argued that they had no connection with the terminal so the actions of the terminal were not attributable to them. It was stressed by the tribunal that shippers and the terminal were separate legal entities with no agency relationship.

The first part of the decision is in line with the precedent set in a number of authorities most notably Compania Crystal de Vapores v. Herman [1958] 2 QB 196 where the chartered vessel ordered from the berth by harbour master due to threat of bad weather. There, it was held that time lost as a result of measures taken for safety of the ship as a result of bad weather does not count. It is vital that bad weather should potentially prevent the loading/discharge. Therefore, to suspend the running of laytime in a case like this, charterers would need to show that the relevant clause refers not only to “bad weather” but also to “steps taken due to bad weather”. The finding on the second part of the clause was fact based and the decision went in favour of the charterer as the owner failed to show that there was any organic relationship between the charterers/shippers and the terminal. However, it is evident that the wording adopted makes this a very broad exception and could potentially provide relief to charters in most instances.

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