Repudiation of time charter. Owners’ claim for summary judgment for damages.

The Marquessa (Giorgis Oil Trading Ltd v AG Shipping & Energy PTE Ltd) [2021] EWHC 2319 (Comm) involved repudiation of a time charter on Shelltime 4 form (as amended). Following repeated non-payment of instalments of hire, owners eventually accepted this conduct as Charterers’ repudiation and terminated the charter.  The vessel was then carrying a cargo, loaded on the orders of Charterers, for sub-sub-charterers, and having exercised a lien, as an act of mitigation, Owners agreed with Voyage Charterers to complete the voyage in exchange for payments to escrow.

 Owners applied for summary  judgment in respect of:

i)  unpaid hire accrued due prior to the termination of the Charterparty (the “Pre-Termination Claim”), and,

ii) damages consequent upon Owners’ termination of the Charterparty on the basis of Charterers’ repudiation or renunciation (the “Post-Termination Claim”), but excluding damages in respect of the period after the discharge of Charterers’ cargo from the Vessel.

Henshaw J rejected Charterers’ assertion that Owners had failed to allow for off-hire periods, presumably for the periods during which Owners suspended performance. Suspension of performance was permitted by the following clause in the charter.

“… failing the punctual and regular payment of hire …  [Owners] shall be at liberty to at any time withhold the performance of any and all of their obligations hereunder … and hire shall continue to accrue …”

Owners’ right to suspend performance was not a penalty. Nor was it arguable that Owner’s exercise of the right to suspend performance was an unlawful exercise of a contractual discretion.  The nature of the right is such that owners could reasonably have regard purely to their own commercial interests.  In any event, the suspension of performance in the present case was not arguably irrational, arbitrary, or capricious. Neither were Owners obliged to mitigate. Their claim was for liquidated sums due under the contract, not damages for breach. Further, any obligation to mitigate did not require them to refrain, while the Charterparty remained on foot, from exercising their right to suspend performance.  In any event, Owners did subsequently take reasonable steps to mitigate by means of their arrangement with the Voyage Charterers.

Henshaw J agreed that by the time Owners treated the Charterparty as having come to an end by reason of Charterers’ breaches a reasonable owner would have concluded from Charterers’ conduct that they would not pay hire punctually in advance as required by the Charterparty:

i) Charterers had failed to pay hire from the outset, and this continued over the ensuing months. 

ii) At most, Charterers expressed a willingness to perform, but repeatedly proved unable or unwilling to do so. 

iii) Charterers’ conduct in the present case deprived Owners of “substantially the whole benefit” of the Charterparty, and they were seeking to hold Owners to an arrangement “radically different” from that which had been agreed. 

It was not arguable, that Owners themselves were in repudiatory breach, for suspending performance and then reaching an agreement with Voyage Charterers: The charter entitled Owners to suspend performance, and the arrangement with the Voyage Charterers was a lawful step in mitigation, realising value from the exercise of Owners’ lien, and in any event post-dated the contract having come to an end upon their acceptance of Charterers’ breaches.

When the Charterparty came to an end in November 2020, the Vessel was laden with cargo and until discharge, no replacement charterparty at the current market rate was possible, and therefore there was no scope for entering into a mitigation charterparty. Accordingly damages ran at the charter rate up until discharge, from which Owners gave credit for address commission, Charterers’ payments and relevant sums received from the Voyage Charterers.  Credit was also given credit for the value of bunkers remaining on board at the date of discharge at the contractual rate in the absence of any evidence from Charterers as to the actual sums paid for the bunkers.

The correct date for assessing the credit for bunkers remaining on board was that of discharge on completion of the voyage for which Charterers had given orders, and not the date of termination. Clause 15 of the Shelltime 4 form (as amended) provides that “… Owners shall on redelivery (whether it occurs at the end of the charter or on the earlier termination of this charter) accept and pay for all bunkers on board …”.

The relevant date must, logically, be the date of actual redelivery, even if it was in fact later than the (natural) end of the charter or the date on which it was contractually brought to an end.  In any event, even if clause 15 were not construed in that way, owners would be still entitled to recover the bunkers used to complete Charterers’ voyage on a different basis, viz as damages or in bailment – as in The Kos [2012] UKSC 17.

Accordingly, Henshaw J found that Owners were entitled to summary judgment for a sum equivalent to hire from when they accepted Charterer’s repudiation to the date of discharge on the laden voyage in progress at that date, less credit for commission and bunkers remaining on board at the latter date.

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