Prestige 3.0 — the saga continues

The Spanish government and SS Mutual are clearly digging in for the long haul over the Prestige pollution debacle eighteen years ago. To recap, the vessel at the time of the casualty was entered with the club under a contract containing a pay to be paid provision and a London arbitration clause. Spain prosecuted the master and owners and, ignoring the arbitration provision, came in as partie civile and recovered a cool $1 bn directly from the club in the Spanish courts. The club meanwhile obtained an arbitration award in London saying that the claim against it had to be arbitrated not litigated, which it enforced under s.66 of the AA 1996 and then used in an attempt to stymie Spain’s bid to register and enforce its court judgment here under Brussels I (a bid now the subject of proceedings timed for this coming December).

In the present proceedings, London Steam-Ship Owners’ Mutual Insurance Association Ltd v Spain (M/T PRESTIGE) [2020] EWHC 1582 (Comm) the club sought essentially to reconvene the arbitration to obtain from the tribunal an ASI against Spain and/or damages for breach of the duty to arbitrate and/or abide by the previous award, covering such things as its costs in the previous s.66 proceedings. By way of machinery it sought to serve out under s 18 of the 1996 Act. Spain claimed sovereign immunity and said these further claims were not arbitrable.

The immunity claim nearly succeeded, but fell at the last fence. There was, Henshaw J said, no agreement to arbitrate under s.9 of the State Immunity Act 1978, which would have sidelined immunity: Spain might be bound not to raise the claim except in arbitration under the principle in The Yusuf Cepnioglu [2016] EWCA Civ 386, but this did not amount to an agreement to arbitrate. Nor was there, on the facts, any submission within s.2. However, he then decided that s.3, the provision about taking part in commercial activities, was applicable and allowed Spain to be proceeded against.

Having disposed of the sovereign immunity point, it remained to see whether the orders sought against Spain — an ASI or damages — were available in the arbitration. Henshaw J thought it well arguable that they were. Although Spain could not be sued for breach of contract, since it had never in so many words promised not to sue the club, it was arguable that neither Brussels I nor s.13 of the 1978 Act barred the ASI claim in the arbitration, and that if an ASI might be able to be had, then there must be at least a possibility of damages in equity under Lord Cairns’s Act.

No doubt there will be an appeal. But this decision gives new hope to P&I and other interests faced with opponents who choose, even within the EU, to treat London arbitration agreements as inconsequential pieces of paper to be ignored with comparative immunity.

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