International insolvency — English law rights confirmed protected

Shortly after New Year 2018, Hildyard J decided that when an Azeri bank went bust and was put into reconstruction in Baku, the Azeri administrator could not use the Cross-Border Insolvency Regulation to freeze out a couple of creditors in England and Russia whose bond debts were governed by English law. They had refused to have anything to do with the reconstruction, smugly sat back and waited for the reconstruction to finish, knowing that the bank still had English assets that could potentially be seized. (See our blogpost here).

The Court of Appeal has now agreed, in Bakhshiyeva (Foreign Representative of the Ojsc International Bank of Azerbaijan) v Sberbank of Russia & Ors [2018] EWCA Civ 2802 (18 December 2018) . It might or might not be a good idea for England to adopt modified universalism in insolvency and accept, in essence, that the law of a corporation’s home jurisdiction should be controlling in all questions of the enforceability of obligations against it, wherever situated and whatever the law governing them. Indeed, it does just this in EU insolvencies, courtesy of the EUInsolvency Regulation 2015. But established common law authority said that an English court would ignore laws cancelling debts that did not emanate from the state whose law governed them. Further, the CBIR was best read as legislation with procedural, not substantive, aims. It would suspend enforcement of obligations while the reconstruction was going ahead, but would not actually destroy them. Any attempt to use a foreign reconstruction for anything more than that would not be countenanced.

Whether this is the last word we will see. There may be an appeal to the Supremes: the two creditors clearly have the money, and quite a lot rides on the result. However, the view of this blog, for what it is worth, is that this is a delicate matter best left to careful legislative reform, if indeed reform is needed at all. And that’s a bigger if than it looks. Money-men aren’t popular these days, but there is something to be said for the position of the two creditors. No-one has to issue English-law bonds, nor to leave assets in England that can be seized to support the obligations contained in them. And, one strongly suspects, the interest rate on the English-law debt was lower than on Azeri-law debt precisely because of the perceived lower solvency risk. The ability to take the benefit of this and then tell foreign creditors to go fish isn’t, perhaps, something we should be promoting.

Remedies for delivery without production of the bill of lading

A case in the CA of some interest today. Imagine carriers or forwarding agents have delivered goods to a buyer without getting payment for them. No point in suing the buyer in 99% of such cases: and often carriers and forwarding agents will be men of straw too (remember in addition that P&I clubs won’t sub up for this sort of thing). But had you thought of suing the rich man behind the buyer who sweet-talked the forwarding agent or carrier into letting the goods go without payment? You hadn’t? It’s actually a classic case, in most situations, of inducing breach of contract: a point confirmed by the Court of Appeal in Michael Fielding Wolff v Trinity Logistics [2018] EWCA Civ 2765, upholding Sara Cockerill QC at first instance. Happy hunting.

Ship arrest: no undertaking in damages exigible from arresting party

The Court of Appeal declined yesterday to upset the ship arrest apple-cart. In The Alkyon [2018] EWCA Civ 2760 it upheld the decision of the Admiralty Judge, Teare J, noted here on this blog, that a bank could hold an arrest over a mortgaged ship without having to give any undertaking to pay damages for loss of use should it turn out that its claim was ill-founded. The owners of the MV Alkyon, a 36,000 dwt bulker, had argued that there was no default justifying her arrest in Newcastle; that they could not afford to bail her; that her immobilisation by arrest would cause them big losses; and that it was only fair that if the bank was indeed wrong, it should carry the can for those losses.

Despite the fact that there is theoretically no restriction on the court’s discretion to release an arrested vessel (see CPR 61.8(4)(b)), Teare J disagreed; and the Court of Appeal agreed with him. Although there was much in common between ship arrest and freezing orders, where an undertaking in damages was emphatically the rule, for the court to demand such an undertaking in arrest cases would  cut across the idea that arrest was available as of right, and also the established principle that liability for wrongful arrest could not be imposed unless the claimant proved bad faith or possibly gross negligence. This was not something for the judiciary — barring possibly the Supreme Court — to do.

In the view of this blog, the Court of Appeal was quite right not to draw the analogy with freezing orders. For one thing not all arresters are plutocratic banks: think crewmen seeking wages or damages for injury on board, or for that matter suppliers of canned food and water for those crewmen to eat and drink. For another, the right to arrest is there for a purpose, namely to assure people that they will be paid by the owners of peripatetic pieces of maritime machinery: to allow a threat to arrest to be met with a threat to claim damages would not further this end. For a third, damages for arrest may well bear no proportion to the amount of the claim: the losses caused by the arrest of a large bulker or reefer would be likely to dwarf a straightforward $100,000 bunkers debt. And lastly, it’s all very well saying a single arrester ought to carry the can for immobilisation losses: but what if cautions against release then pile on? Which of the undeserving claimants should have to pay how much? Nice work for lawyers, maybe: less good news for shipping claimants who want to get on with their commercial lives.

Where is General Average?

Jurisdiction decisions in the shipping context follow each other in close succession. Yesterday we had another, from Males J, of some interest to insurers: namely, Griffin Underwriting Ltd v Varouxakis (The Free Goddess) [2018] EWHC 3259 (Comm).

The Free Goddess, a 22,000 dwt bulker owned by Freeseas, was seized by Somali pirates while en route to Thailand with steel coils. K & R insurers Griffin, based in Guernsey but doing business in London, paid out something over $6 million to free her, whereupon she sailed to Oman. Griffin clearly had a right to take over from Freeseas a pretty cast-iron GA claim against cargo interests: on arrival it duly entered into a settlement agreement with Freeseas under which Freeseas agreed to furnish all assistance, including preservation of security, in claiming GA and also to account to Griffin for all sums received on that basis. GA, as might be expected, was settlable and payable in London.

According to Griffin’s (as yet unestablished) allegations, Freeseas did no such thing. Instead of the obvious course of oncarrying the cargo to Thailand and claiming GA in due course, it sold the ship in Oman, destroying any security for GA and providing cargo with a counterclaim for damages which was likely to dwarf the GA liability in any case. In addition it had allegedly trousered a large sum in interim GA contributions without accounting for it. 

Freeseas not being worth powder and shot, Griffin sued one Ion Varouxakis, the Greek-domiciled owner of the company, for inducing it to break the settlement agreement. They alleged that the damage had been suffered in London and therefore they could invoke Art.7, the tort article of Brussels I Recast. Mr Varouxakis insisted that he could only be sued in Greece, arguing for good measure that this was a suit by an underwriter in a matter relating to insurance under Art.14, so the other exceptions did not apply.

In fact Mr Varouxakis was held to have waived any jurisdiction point, so the claim is going ahead in London anyway. But Males J did go on to give a view on the other points. On the issue of the loss of the right to GA, he regarded the issue of where the loss had been suffered as finely balanced, but expressed the view that the direct damage had been suffered in Oman, where he opined that the right to enforce GA had been effectively lost: the fact that GA had not been paid in London he regarded as a remoter consequence and not in account because of decisions such as Kronhofer v Mayer [2004] All ER (EC) 939. So there would have been no jurisdiction. On the other hand, he thought the loss had been suffered in London as regarded the failure to account, and so would have allowed the claim under that head to go ahead on that head in any event. As for the suggestion that this was a matter relating to insurance, he smartly rebuffed the point: insurance might be the background, but this arose out of an independent settlement agreement.

The second point was fairly obvious: if someone infringes my right to an accounting in London, it is difficult to think of anywhere apart from London where the damage occurs. The third is also welcome: the insurance rules under under Art.14 are ill-thought-out even by Euro-standards, and anything that prevents their becoming any more bloated than they already are can only be a good thing.  

This blog is less sure about the first. Saying the damage occurred in Oman gets pretty close to conflating damage with the act giving rise to it; it also means that the place of the damage in cases of this sort becomes wildly arbitrary, depending on which port a vessel happens to be in at the time. On the other hand, if GA is settled and negotiated in London, it seems fairly convincing to argue that preventing it being settled and paid there causes a direct loss within the Square Mile. Unfortunately, because the claimants won in any case, we are unlikely to see an appeal here. But this shouldn’t be regarded as necessarily the last word.


Atlantik (misplaced) Confidence — the saga continues.

Last year we dealt here with Teare J’s meticulous decision in Aspen Underwriting Ltd & Ors v Kairos Shipping Ltd [2017] EWHC 1904 (Comm), in which following the Atlantik Confidence debacle, hull underwriters, having previously paid out on the orders of her owners’ (Dutch) bank under an insurance assignment provision, now sued the bank to recover their money on the basis that the ship had been deliberately scuttled. The issue was whether the bank could insist on being sued in the Netherlands on the basis of Art.4 of Brussels I Recast. The decision was that most claims, including those based on unjust enrichment, had to be brought in the Netherlands. Howver, claims based on tortious misrepresentation and under the Misrepresentation Act 1967 could be brought here. The fact that such claims related to insurance under Art.14 was no bar, since there was no question of a large Dutch bank being a weaker party who, according to Recital 18 to the Regulation, needed to be protected from the machinations of big bad insurers.

The Court of Appeal has dismissed an appeal (seeAspen Underwriting Ltd & Ors v Credit Europe Bank NV [2018] EWCA Civ 2590). On most points it simply said that the Judge had got it absolutely right. The only exception was that it was not open to a judge, consitently with Euro-law, to take the sensible view and decline to apply Art.14 to anyone he thouht was not in fact a weaker party. But this did not matter, since in Kabeg v Mutuelles Du Mans Assurances (Case C-340/16) [2017] I.L. Pr. 31 the ECJ Advocate-General had since Teare J’s judgment accepted that Art.14 could be disapplied to a subrogee “regularly involved in the commercial or otherwise professional settlement of insurance-related claims who voluntarily assumed the realisation of the claim as party of its commercial or otherwise professional activity”. This was near enough to the position of the bank here to justify ignoring Art.14.

Some good news, in other words, for marine underwriters trying to get their money back from those acting for crooks.  On the other had, the moral we advanced in our previous article still stands: all policies in future ought to contain a term, rigorously enforced, stating that no monies will be paid out save against a signed receipt specifically submitting to the exclusive jurisdiction of the English courts in respect of any subsequent dispute respecting the payment or the policy generally.

 

Another sensible OW Bunker decision

The US Ninth Circuit rightly confirms that the only person who can sue in rem for the price of bunkers supplied is the person who contracted with the operator of the vessel. It’s not enough that you physically pumped the bunkers aboard on the orders of another supplier who contracted to supply them to the ship and then agreed to buy them from you and pay you for them. Quite right too. Those who give credit to the uncreditworthy (in this case — you guessed — OW Bunkers) must be allowed to lose out: that’s business, sonny.

See Bunker Holdings v Yang Ming Liberia, No. 16-35539 (9th Cir., October 11, 2018). And thanks to the Maritime Advocate for the heads-up.

Force majeure and counterfactuals

A nice force majeure issue — and one of considerable importance — came up before Teare J yesterday in Classic Maritime v Limbungan [2018] EWHC 2389 (Comm), argued by IISTL stalwart Simon Rainey QC. Imagine you conclude a contract (in this case a CoA under which you have to provide a number of iron ore cargoes) which in the event you can’t and don’t perform, and never could have performed. An exemption clause in the contract says that if you could have performed it but a force majeure event X (inundations in Brazilian iron ore mines) then occurs that stops you performing it, you are not liable for breach. Event X occurs. Are you (a) in breach of contract, (b) on the hook for substantial damages?

On (a) the answer is Yes. You promised to perform, you haven’t performed, and because you never could have performed in any case you can’t shelter behind the exemption clause.

But what about (b)? There are two ways to look at this. One is to say: this is a simple case of unexcused non-performance, and hence you must be liable to the shipowner for his lost profits on the carriage, a figure amounting to many millions. The other point of view runs thus. If, counterfactually, you could have performed but for X, the shipowner would in the event have had no claim to performance because of the exemption clause. Hence hence it’s no skin off his nose that you didn’t perform, and damages are nominal only. Teare J plumped for the second: nominals only.

This view is highly plausible and for the moment clearly represents the law. It also dovetails quite nicely with the general rule in cases such as The Golden Victory [2007] UKHL 12, [2007] 2 A.C. 353 and Bunge v Nidera [2015] UKSC 43, [2015] 2 CLC 120, that in assessing damages we take into account later events that would have taken away the right to demand performance.

But this case, or the issue in it, may go further. There is a respectable argument, that certainly can’t be dismissed summarily, which suggests a different answer. In so far as the inability to rely on a force majeure clause is due to a party’s own default, which was the case in Classic Maritime, should it be open to that party to argue that if he had acted differently he would have been able to invoke that very same clause? Suppose a force majeure clause requires notice to be given within 7 days after the force majeure event; a party prevented by force majeure nevertheless fails to give notice for 10 days, and thus loses the protection of the clause. Is it really open to the party then to say that if he had given the proper contractual 7 days notice he would have been protected by the clause, the counterparty would have had no right to demand performance, and hence damages are nominal only? I’m doubtful. And I’m equally not sure that this scenario is that different from what happened in Classic Maritime.  It’s just a thought. Whether it’s a good one, only time will tell.

All change for financier assignees — second time lucky with anti-anti-assignment provisions?

The good times seem likely to end finally on 31 December this year for anti-assignment clauses. The Government has published the draft Business Contract Terms (Assignment of Receivables) Regulations 2018, which for SMEs essentially invalidate anti-assignment clauses affecting receivables — i.e. sums payable for goods or services supplied. A few pointers:

1. The prohibition is not limited to assignment to financiers: assignment to debt-collectors, etc, also seems to be protected.

2.  There are anti-avoidance provisions. Any attempt to put conditions on the assignability of receivables is outlawed. The blurb states that a set-off clause is not such a condition: this may be important where, for example, a contract allows set-offs that would not otherwise be pleadable against an assignee. On the other hand, there is some doubt about this: the Regulations do not contain any such provision, and the blurb, of course, is not part of them.

3. There are exceptions. These include financial services, swaps, energy futures, petroleum licences, public-private partnership projects and contracts with national security implications. Importantly there are also two other carve-outs. One is contracts where one or more parties is not acting in the course of a business. This means consumers can, if there is a suitable term, continue to refuse to deal with an assignee. Another is contracts which neither party entered into in the course of a business here: so genuine international contracts remain subject to the old freedom of contract rules. Perhaps suprisingly, rental contracts are also excluded, except when connected with certain forms of financial services.

All in all, these seem an improvement on last year’s regulations (not difficult). As to their effect we’ll have to wait and see.

Ship arrest: no provision for compensation for losses if claim turns out unjustified

You can always expect a scholarly judgment from Teare J. Today he dealt with a long-standing issue in the English law of arrest of ships: the lack of any jurisdiction to demand from the arrester security  for, or payment of compensation for, the losses suffered by the owner if the arrest turns out unjustified. His Lordship confirmed the traditional position, holding that it was for Parliament, or possibly the Rules Committee, to deal with this. If we limited damages for wrongful arrest to cases of malice or gross negligence, he said, it would be inconsistent to give a remedy for arrest not fulfilling these criteria.

In Natwest Markets Plc v Stallion Eight Shipping Co. SA, (the ship MV ALKYON) [2018] EWHC 2033 (Admlty) a bank mortgagee arrested alleging a LTV default; the owner denied default. Unable to secure release by putting up further security, it sought release unless the bank put up security for any losses it suffered in case the bank was wrong. The arrest was, consistently with the above, maintained.

Carriers and bills of lading: an unexpected duty to arbitrate.

An important point for bill of lading holders arose a couple of days ago in the Commercial Court. Everyone knows that you have to watch your back when becoming the holder of a bill of lading, in case you end up with not only the right to sue the carrier but also the duty to foot the bill for an insolvent shipper’s liabilities.

Traditionally the teaching has been: you are safe unless you take or demand delivery of the goods or make a claim against the carrier. It follows that if you are pretty sure you never did any of those things but nevertheless receive a demand from the carrier, you can smugly respond “Nothing doing. Sue me if you dare.” So far so good. But what if you receive a demand for arbitration pursuant to an arbitration clause contained in the bill? Can you still say “See you in court”, or are you now bound to arbitrate the claim, with the risk of losing by default if you do nothing? This was the point that arose in Sea Master Shipping Inc v Arab Bank (Switzerland) Ltd [2018] EWHC 1902 (Comm), where Popplewell J preferred the latter answer.

A bank financed A, a seller of Argentine extracted toasted soya meal, who voyage-chartered a vessel to deliver it to Moroccan buyers. The transaction was a disaster for A, with the deal and a series of replacements falling through and the vessel sailing round North Africa and the Mediterranean, rather like Captain Hendrick’s Flying Dutchman, in search of someone somewhere to love the cargo. Big demurrage liabilities built up. The bank meanwhile acquiesced in the issue of a switch bill with a LMAA arbitration clause incorporated, naming it as consignee. A being (one assumes) insolvent, the owners claimed against the bank and claimed arbitration, alleging the bank was liable either as an original party to the switch bill, or as a transferee of it.

The arbitrators declined jurisdiction, on the basis that there was no evidence the bank had become liable on the bill under s.3 of COGSA 1992 and thus that the bank was not bound by the arbitration clause. However, on a s.67 application Popplewell J disagreed. The arbitration agreement was, he said, separate from the rights and liabilities under the bill itself: as soon as the bank fell to be treated as a party to the bill under s.2 of the Act, it was bound fully by any arbitration provision in it. It followed that the case had to be remitted to the arbitrators with a direction to continue with their hearing of the claim.

A result which, one suspects, will please neither banks nor traders, since it deprives both of the advantage of inertia: but there you are. At least carriers will be happy.