Insurance and P&I: life in Europe just got easier

Whatever you think of Brexit, there can be little doubt that English P&I Clubs have reaped a substantial dividend from it when it comes to jurisdiction. A discreet bottle or two will no doubt be cracked open as a result of Foxton J’s judgment today in QBE Europe SA v Generali España de Seguros y Reaseguros [2022] EWHC 2062 (Comm).

The facts will be entirely familiar to any P&I claims handler. The Angara, a small superyacht insured against P&I risks by QBE UK under a policy later transferred to QBE Europe, allegedly damaged an underwater cable linking Mallorca and Menorca to the tune of nearly $8 million. The cable owners’ underwriters Generali brought a subrogated claim in the Spanish courts against QBE, relying on a Spanish direct action statute (Arts. 465-467 of the 2014 Ley de Navegación Marítima). QBE pointed to a London arbitration clause requiring disputes between insurer and assured to be arbitrated in London, said that if Generali wanted to enforce the policy they had to take the rough with the smooth. This being a post-Brexit suit, they sought an ASI.

Generali resisted. They argued that they were enforcing a direct delictual liability under Spanish law, and that in any case since the arbitration clause merely referred to assured and insurer (and indeed the whole policy excluded any third party rights under the Third Parties (Rights against Insurers) Act 1999) they were unaffected by it.

Pre-Brexit, QBE’s position would have been fairly hopeless: intra-EU ASIs were banned, and furthermore the effect of Assens Havn (Judicial cooperation in civil matters) [2017] EUECJ C-368/16 (noted here in this blog) would have largely pre-empted the matter in the Spanish courts.

But in this, one of the first post-Brexit P&I cases to come to the English courts, QBE won hands down. Solid first instance authority had extended the rule in The Angelic Grace [1995] 1 Lloyd’s Rep 87 (i.e. that very good reasons had to be shown for not granting an ASI to halt foreign proceedings brought in blatant breach of contract) to cases where the person suing was enforcing transferred rights, as where a subrogated insurer sought to take advantage of contractual provisions between its insured and the defendant. That line of decisions applied here: and Foxton J duly followed it, confirmed it and lengthened it by one.

He then asked whether, properly characterised, Generali’s suit was a tort claim or in substance a claim to piggy-back on the policy QBE had issued. His Lordship had no doubt that it was the latter. True, the Spanish direct action provisions disapplied certain limitations in the policy, such as pay to be paid provisions and a number of defences based on misconduct by the assured; but the matter had to be viewed in the round, and overall the cause of action arising under the 2014 Spanish law, being based on the existence of a policy and limited to sums assured under it, was clearly contract-based. It remained to deal with Generali’s further point based on the limited wording of the arbitration clause. Here his Lordship accepted that parties could provide that an arbitration clause in a contract did not apply to those suing under some derivative title, but said that much more would be required to demonstrate such an intent: the mere fact of reference to the original parties to the contract was not nearly enough.

And that was it: having failed to show any substantial reason why the ASI should not go, Generali were ordered to discontinue the Spanish proceedings.

What messages can P&I clubs and other insurers taker away? Three are worth referring to. One is that the enforcement of jurisdiction and arbitration clauses in a European context is now fairly straightforward. Another refers to the specific case of Spain, which altered its direct action statute in 2014: the QBE case has confirmed that under the new dispensation, as much as under the old, an attempt to use direct action as a means of getting at insurers abroad will continue to be be regarded as essentially an attempt to enforce the insurance contract. And third, judges in the UK are unlikely to be very receptive to attempts by claimants desperate to litigate at home to give arbitration or jurisdiction clauses an unnaturally narrow meaning.

Life, in short, has got a good deal easier for P&I interests. Now, where’s that bottle of cava?

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