When is a bill of lading not a bill of lading?

If something looks like a duck, but doesn’t swim like a duck or quack like a duck, then there’s a fair chance it may not actually be a duck. A salutary decision last Friday from Singapore made just this point about bills of lading. You can’t simply assume that a piece of paper headed “Bill of Lading” and embodying the kind of wording you’re used to seeing in a bill of lading is anything of the sort if the circumstances show that the parties had no intention to treat it as one.

The Luna [2021] SGCA 84 arose out of the OW Bunkers debacle, the gift that goes on giving to commercial lawyers with school fees to pay. In brief, Phillips was in the the business of acquiring and blending fuel oil in Singapore, and then supplying it to bunkering companies that would ship it out in barges to ocean-going vessels in need of a stem. One of those companies was the Singapore branch of OW. Phillips sold barge-loads of bunkers to OW on fob terms, with ownership passing to OW when the oil went on board the barge, payment due in 30 days and – significantly – not so much as a smell of any retention of title in Phillips.

When OW collapsed in 2014 owing Phillips big money, Phillips, having given credit to the uncreditworthy, looked around for someone else to sue. Their gaze lighted on the barge-owner carriers. For each barge-load, the latter had issued a soi-disant bill of lading to Phillips’s order with the discharge port designated rather charmingly as “Bunkers for ocean going vessels or so near as the vessel can safely get, always afloat”. The modus operandi, however, had been somewhat at odds with everyday bill of lading practice. The bunkers had in normal cases been physically stemmed within a day or so; OW (while solvent) had paid Phillips after 30 days against a certificate of quantity and a commercial invoice; and the bill of lading had remained at all times with Phillips, and no question had ever arisen of any need to present it to the carriers to get hold of the goods it supposedly covered.

On OW’s insolvency Phillips totted up the bunkers sold by it to OW and not paid for, took the relevant bills of lading out of its safe, and on the basis of those documents formally demanded delivery of the oil from the issuing carriers. When this was not forthcoming (as Phillips knew perfectly well it would not be) Phillips sued the carriers for breach of contract, conversion and reversionary injury, and arrested the barges concerned.

Reversing the judge, the Singapore Court of Appeal dismissed the claim. The issue was whether these apparent bills of lading had been intended to take effect as such, or for that matter to have any contractual force at all. Whatever the position as regards the matters that could be regarded when it came to interpretation of a contract, on this wider issue all the underlying facts were in account. Here the practice of all parties concerned, including the acceptance that at no time had there been any question of the carriers demanding production of the bills before delivering a stem to a vessel, indicated a negative answer.

Having decided that there could be no claim under the terms of the so-called bills of lading, the court then went on to say – citing the writings of a certain IISTL member – there could equally be no claim for conversion or reversionary injury.

This must be correct. Further, given the tendency of businesses to issue documents without being entirely sure of their nature or import, the result in this case needs noting carefully by commercial lawyers throughout the common law world.

A note of caution may also be in order, however, as regards carriers. You must still be careful what documents you do issue. True, the carrier in The Luna escaped liability because all parties accepted that the so-called bill of lading didn’t mean what it seemed to say (indeed, it doesn’t seem to have meant very much at all). But imagine that a bill of lading issued in these circumstances which ends up in the hands of a bank or other financier who is not aware of the circumstances and who in all innocence lends against it. The betting there must be that, as against the financier, the carrier issuing it would take the risk of being taken at its word. And this could be a very expensive risk, particularly since the chances of it being covered by any normal P&I club are pretty remote. Carriers, you have been warned.

Reflective loss — some unfinished business

Life in lugubrious legal lockdown was briefly relieved when last year the Supreme Court in Sevilleja v Marex Financial Ltd [2021] A.C. 39 pruned back the luxuriant growth of the reflective loss rule. To remind you, the reflective loss rule is the principle that you cannot sue X for damages in so far as (i) you are a shareholder in Y Ltd; (ii) Y Ltd could itself have sued X; and (iii) the loss you seek to have made good simply reflects the depreciation in your shareholding due to the damage wrongfully caused by X to Y. Marex had the effect of limiting this restrictive rule rule to claims by shareholders, and scotching the heresy that it extended more generally to any case where X was guilty of a wrong against Y which incidentally cased loss to some third party Z (the claimant in that case being not a shareholder but a mere creditor).

By common consent, Marex left a fair number of loose ends to be tidied up later. In a Cayman appeal today, Primeo Fund v Bank of Bermuda & Ors [2021] UKPC 22, the Privy Council neatly knotted one such, namely that of timing. Granted that a shareholder in Y Ltd cannot sue X for loss reflecting the diminution in his holding in Y Ltd, what is the relevant time: is it when the cause of action arises, or when the claimant sues?

Simplifying as far as possible, Primeo was the Cayman Islands investment arm of the Bank of Austria. In the 1990s it appointed as custodians and investment advisers a couple of companies connected with the Bank of Bermuda, R1 and R2. It was then unlucky enough to be introduced to BLMIS LLC, in effect a unit trust operated by the redoubtable Ponzi fraudster Bernie Madoff. Large sums of money were entrusted by Primeo to BLMIS, most of which (it was found) were immediately appropriated by Mr Madoff and his pals.

In 2007 Primeo’s investment was restructured: its interests in BLMIS were transferred to a separate corporate vehicle, Herald Fund SPC, and in exchange Primeo got shares in Herald. At the same time R1 and R2 agreed to function as custodians and investment advisers to Herald.

Just before Christmas 2008 the Madoff house of cards collapsed, and with it BLMIS. As part of the ensuing litigation, Primeo – itself by then in liquidation – sued R1 and R2 for failing in the years before 2007 to alert it to indications that Mr Madoff was an obvious crook, and thus causing it to entrust more money to him and not to withdraw what it had while the going was good. One defence was reflective loss. R1 and R2 argued that, in so far as Herald could have sued them for loss caused to it (on the basis that they had negligently allowed it to take over assets from Primeo which it was now clear had been of very doubtful value all along), and that because as a result of events in 2007 Primeo’s loss now fell to be reckoned by the diminution of the value of its holding in Herald, the case fell squarely within the reflective loss rule.

The Cayman courts agreed, but the Privy Council was having none of it. It rightly pointed out that since Marex it had been clear that reflective loss was a rule of substantive law, rather than one of damages or title to sue. If so, it followed that the relevant time for seeing whether it applied was the time of the wrong for which compensation was sought. In Primeo, at that time there could have been no question of reflective loss: it was simply a case of allegedly bad advice leading to direct investment in a fraudulent scheme. It was at that moment that Primeo’s rights had crystallised, and nothing that happened later could take them away. It followed that the case was outside the reflective loss principle entirely.

In deciding as it did, the Privy Council had to deal with one awkward decision of the Court of Appeal, Nectrus Ltd v UCP Plc [2021] EWCA Civ 57. In that case, essentially a mirror image of Primeo, a claimant had as a result of allegedly negligent advice invested in securities through a wholly-owned subsidiary. Since the subsidiary could also have sued the adviser, the claim was fairly and squarely within the principle. However, by the time the action was brought the claimant had divested itself of the subsidiary and its holding; and the Court of Appeal had held that this removed the reflective loss bar. However, the Privy Council rightly held that such reasoning could not stand scrutiny, and that Nectrus had been wrongly decided on the point.

It may be that this open discountenancing of Nectrus as wrongly decided will be taken as an express statement that English courts should no longer follow Nectrus, something which since 2016 has been possible in the Privy Council: see Lord Neuberger in Willers v Joyce (No 2) [2018] A.C. 843 at [21]. This blog certainly hopes so. It would be very unfortunate were a judge at first instance to feel constrained to follow Nectrus on the basis that this bound him, whereas a mere decision of the Privy Council (which is not technically an English court) did not. But only time, and the inclination of litigants to put their money where their mouth is, will tell.

Liquidated damages and the ticking clock

Time to get back to the drawing-board, perhaps, if you’re a construction contractor. Suppose you you agree to do work and include this liquidated damages term:

“If CONTRACTOR fails to deliver work within the time specified and the delay has not been introduced by EMPLOYER, CONTRACTOR shall be liable to pay the penalty at the rate of 0.1% of undelivered work per day of delay from the due date for delivery up to the date EMPLOYER accepts such work. …”

Things drag on: there’s some work you never actually do at all, and in the end the employer terminates the contract. Can the employer claim liquidated damages for the period between the due date and termination, on the basis that the meter started ticking when you should have finished the work and only ground to a halt when he walked away and put an end to the whole arrangement? Or is he limited to proving his loss in the ordinary fashion, on the argument that if work is never accepted (ex hypothesi the case where it was never done in the first place), the clause makes no sense and therefore has to fall away?

In Triple Point Technology, Inc v PTT Public Co Ltd [2021] UKSC 2 the Supremes, reversing the Court of Appeal, chose the former solution. It was, it said, more commercial that once the meter had begun to tick the accrued rights to payment that arose de die in diem as a result should be preserved, and would not be liable to disappear in a puff of legal smoke if at some time in the future it became clear that the work would never be done. Furthermore, said the court, the opposite answer would create a perverse incentive: assuming the liquidated damages clause was more profitable to the employer that his right to damages, it might be in the interests of the contractor not to tender performance at all.

This is arguably right, though not incontrovertibly so (one could equally well contend that if the parties had intended that the clause should apply in the case of non-performance it would not have been difficult for them to say “up to the date EMPLOYER accepts such work, or the Contract is terminated by EMPLOYER, whichever shall be the sooner”.) But for future contracts this does not matter to much, since the ball is in the court of contract draftsmen.

Nevertheless, one thing might be worth contemplating for contractors. Having shied away from creating a perverse incentive in the contractor to drag his feet, the UKSC has arguably created an equal and opposite one in the employer. What if, after relations have de facto broken down without the work being done, such that there is now no practical chance of their completion and acceptance, the employer smugly writes to the contractor saying he continues to hold the contract open? True, the courts would no doubt find a way to prevent the clock potentially ticking on until the last trump (see MSC Mediterranean Shipping Co SA v Cottonex Anstalt [2016] EWCA Civ 789, noted here in this blog). But a couple of months or so of foot-dragging at 0.1% per day would be distinctly profitable if they led to a windfall claim for 6.1% of the relevant price with no questions asked. Indeed a lawyer who didn’t raise this possibility with his clients might face some awkward questions later.

There is, however, a possible straightforward answer. There is much to be said for contractors arguing for the insertion of a bespoke provision applying whenever a right to terminate had arisen in the employer, allowing the contractor to put him to his election and in the absence of an election to terminate to put an end to the running of liquidated damages for delay.

Two other issues arose in the case about the drafting of the damages limitation clause. But these turned very much on the interpretation of the wording used, and are of little general interest. Meanwhile, however, if they don’t like the result in PTT lawyers are on notice to get out their word-processors and go over their precedents.

Strict product liability: information doesn’t count — official (sort of).

If you hoped that since Brexit you could forget about keeping one eye on the decisions of the CJEU, think again. Yesterday in Krone Verlag GmbH (Case 65/20) [2021] EUECJ C-65-20, that court decided an important issue of product liability under the Product Liability Directive, an EU measure that remains essentially in effect here having been enacted as Part I of the Consumer Protection Act 1987.

An Austrian redtop newspaper reader followed the advice contained in an article it ran on home doctoring, and applied a poultice of grated horseradish for several hours to a swollen ankle. She suffered a serious toxic skin reaction because such remedies ought to be applied for only a few minutes. In an unfortunate typo the paper had substituted hours for minutes.

She sued the proprietors, alleging that the newspaper was a defective product under the Directive and that they were therefore strictly liable to her for the consequences of the material contained in it. The owners argued that defective products meant only physically defective products, and did not cover informational defects. Case law in Austria being divided on the point, the Oberster Gerichtshof (ie the Austrian Supreme Court) referred the matter to Luxembourg.

The Euro-court briskly sided with the newspaper proprietors. A bright Euro-line had to be drawn between liability for defective things (strict) and for bad services (fault-based): and a thing did not become defective merely because it happened to be the medium for misleading advice or intellectual content apt to cause harm or injury.

Good news, certainly, for publishers: not only of newspapers, but (more importantly in the commercial context) of instruction books and manuals for maintenance or assembly. These people are it seems now insulated — at least as a matter of our law — from strict liability claims by workers complaining of injury due to incomplete or misleading materials contained in them; they are also safe from strict liability contribution claims by the insurers of employers and others who have been successfully sued by workers and now seek to pass on part of the liability. Equally, in the rare case where mariners rely on a misleading paper chart with untoward results, there can be no question now of liability in the cartographers for injuries resulting.

This judgment was about paper media: but presumably it applies to material on machine-readable media too. It can hardly make a difference whether information is supplied printed on paper or written on to a DVD or USB stick. So there can now be no strict liability suit for instructions supplied on a DVD, or if a DVD fitted into, say, an ECDIS display has a bug in it that causes the display to be wrong. (If material is supplied over the Net no question arises anyway, since then there is no physical medium at all).

A little more difficult is the position of software for operating machines, where there is no element of intellectual content readable by humans: the DVD, for example, that you insert into a device (such as the control unit of a drone submersible) to cause it to run or to transfer necessary operating information to it. If this is misconfigured and causes the device to malfunction and cause injury, is this a defective good? The matter is not absolutely clear. But the stress laid by the Court on the difference between goods and services suggests that here too liability under the Product Liability Directive should be denied. Bad instructions directed at a machine seem more a matter of a defective service than a defect in anything physical: physicality here is confined to the medium on which the instructions happen to be written.

In terms of strict law this decision is not in any way binding on a court in the UK applying the Consumer Protection Act. In practice, however, Brexit or no Brexit, it’s difficult to see the courts here coming to a different conclusion. Particularly since, at least to us at the IISTL, the result reached in Luxembourg seems so overwhelmingly sensible.

Lugano blues?

Unfinished business permeates Brexit. A case in point is jurisdiction and enforcement of judgments. As of the end of last year the regimes which had thitherto featured so large in lawyers’ lives, Brussels I, Lugano and the Brussels Convention, fell away. What remained was the common law rules on jurisdiction and enforcement, tempered only by the much more skeletal 2005 Hague Convention on Choice of Court Agreements, possibly a few hoary pre-EU bilateral treaties on enforcement of judgments, and a vague prospect of the UK joining Lugano as a non-EU state with the agreement of the EU.

The latter possibility has now been scotched; although the other Lugano states (Switzerland, Iceland and Norway) were cool about the idea, the EU Commission on 4 May came out with a de Gaullean Non. For the moment therefore we are stuck with the status quo.

Is this a disaster for UK lawyers, in particular as regards the enforceability of our judgments elsewhere in Europe? Not as much as you might think, even though though it is a reverse, and admittedly proceedings to give effect to judgments may become somewhat untidier and more costly.

First, note that in the EEA outside the EU, Switzerland has a fairly summary native procedure for enforcing foreign (non-Lugano) judgments; and as regards Norway we have dusted off a 1961 agreement and reactivated it.

Turning to the position within the EU, it is worth remembering that one sizeable subset of Commercial Court judgments will remain fairly readily enforceable: namely, those emanating from exclusive English jurisdiction clauses – a very common phenomenon in international trade contracts, and a not unusual one in other cases where English law is chosen by the parties to govern their transaction. This is because the 2005 Hague Convention, already applicable in the UK and throughout the EU (and also in Singapore and Montenegro) mandates enforcement, not only of such clauses, but also of any judgments resulting. The only gaping exceptions here are interim judgments and carriage contracts.

In the mid-term things may moreover get better. The EU is, it seems, well on the way to ratifying the 2019 Hague Convention on the Recognition and Enforcement of Foreign Judgments in Civil or Commercial Matters, a convention to which the UK can also adhere. If and when EU and UK both ratify this Convention, it will require expeditious enforcement of each other’s commercial judgments – and incidentally judicially-approve settlements – rendered against, among others, anyone who has agreed to the jurisdiction of the court rendering the judgment. Its only slightly annoying exception, as in the case of the 2005 Hague Convention, concerns carriage contracts, something apt to exclude bill of lading and voyage charter disputes (though possibly not time charter litigation).

Furthermore, it is worth remembering that the UK’s exclusion from Lugano carries one positive benefit: namely, an escape from its strict and arguably over-dirigiste provisions on jurisdiction. UK courts will thus retain the ability regained in January to decline jurisdiction where there is a good reason to do so without being concerned with the straitjacket imposed by Owusu v Jackson (C-281/02) [2005] E.C.R. I-1383. Conversely, English courts will keep their newly-restored ability to extend to European-domiciled defendants the wide English rules of exorbitant jurisdiction tempered only by forum non conveniens and the court’s discretion to refuse permission to serve out. Further, one suspects much to everyone’s relief, lis alibi pendens in Europe will not, as in Art.27 of Lugano, prevent the English court hearing the case, but merely give it a discretion to do so. The unlamented Italian torpedo fashioned by cases such as Erich Gasser GmbH v MISAT SRL (Case C-116/02) [2003] E.C.R. I-14693, partly but only partly disposed of in Brussels I Recast, will thus be for ever disarmed and its casing given a decent burial on the seabed. And, of course, the anti-suit injunction, a remedy of very considerable use in the practical defence of exclusive jurisdiction and arbitration agreements, is now available against all defendants.

In short, life may be messier for English lawyers without Lugano. But one suspects that it may not be that much unhealthier for the legal business of the English courts. For the moment at least UK Law Plc remains in pretty rude health, and with very decent prospects for the foreseeable future. You’d be foolish if you thought of writing it off any time soon.

No strikeout for Bangladeshi ship scrapping claim: but don’t hold your breath

As we mentioned on this blog last August, these days you have to be careful who you sell an old ship to. In Begum v Maran [2021] EWCA Civ 326 MUK, the English managers of a Liberian ship fit only for scrap, helped arrange her sale to a buyer who paid fairly handsomely. That buyer proceeded (entirely foreseeably) to have her scrapped by a thoroughly dodgy outfit called Zuma in a dangerous and environmentally irresponsible way on a Bangladeshi beach. A worker engaged in stripping the hulk fell to his death. Prospects of recovery from Zuma being low, if for no other reason because of a local one-year statute of limitations during the running of which nothing had been done, his widow sued MUK as of right in England because of its domicile here, alleging negligence. Jay J decided that it was arguable that MUK had owed the man a duty of care, and that the local limitations law might be circumvented, and refused a strikeout. MUK appealed.

The Court of Appeal yesterday allowed the case to go ahead, though only very grudgingly and on a more limited basis than Jay J. The Court was particularly sceptical on the limitation point. Under Rome II, applicable to the claim as it predated Brexit (and still applicable to post-Brexit claims in its domesticated form), the law governing the claim – including on the subject of limitation – was Bangladeshi. This immediately defeated the claimant unless she could escape it. The judge had regarded as possibly plausible a contention that Art.7 of Rome II allowed her to invoke English law because her husband’s death had resulted from environmental damage caused by an event here – namely, MTM’s arrangements for sale of the ship. But this was dismissed on appeal as unarguable: rightly so, since this simply wasn’t an environmental case in the first place. But the court did see it as arguable – just – that the limitation period was so short that an English court might disapply it on public policy grounds under Art.26 of Rome II, and ordered a preliminary issue on the point.

On the substantive points, the widow argued either that MUK had owed her husband a duty of care on the principle of Donoghue v Stevenson [1932] AC 562, or that MUK’s sale of the vessel when it should have known that it was likely to be dangerously demolished had created an immediate danger to her husband’s life and thus engendered a duty in respect of the bad practices of his employers Zuma.

Giving the lead judgment, Coulson J was very sceptical on the first point. This wasn’t, he said, a case of a disposal of a dangerous thing, but rather the furnishing of an opportunity for a third party to be negligent in respect of a thing not inherently perilous. Whether this could give rise to a duty his Lordship thought very doubtful indeed – but still not quite implausible enough to justify an immediate strikeout. Our view is that the doubts were fully justified. We normally expect employers to look after their employees; to put a duty on third parties to police the behaviour of contractors they engaged in that respect is to say the least drastic. Should I really have to scrutinise or supervise the employment practices of the builder I employ to extend my house in case one of his workers is hurt? It seems doubtful.

On the second point, the difficulty (a considerable one) was the general rule that people were not generally made responsible for the wrongs of others, however foreseeable. But, said Coulson J, there were possible exceptions where the danger in question had been created by a defendant. And while it seemed unlikely that this would apply here, the law was not absolutely clear and the prospect of persuading a sceptical judge to recognise a duty of care wasn’t dismal enough to deny the widow the chance to argue the toss. Her prospects might be slim, but she was entitled to chance her arm.

This case will possibly be hailed in the liberal media as an advance in the campaign to make big business in Britain take responsibility for the activities of its dodgier partners abroad. But commercial lawyers know better than to engage in chicken-counting. Remember, the claimant here only avoided a strikeout by the skin of her teeth. Her chances of recovering much over and above a nuisance value or reputation-saving settlement remain, it seems fair to say, pretty slim.

Oh, and one more thing. The ability to sue a UK-domiciled company here as of right disappeared with Brussels I Recast in a puff of celebratory Brexit firework smoke at 2300 hours on 31 December last. It follows that, barring swift adherence by the UK to the Lugano convention (increasingly unlikely by all the indications), any future claimant basing their complaint on events in a far-off land with no ostensible connection to England will now also face the prospect of a forum non conveniens application. This may well have an appreciable chance of success. There is, after all, no immediately apparent reason why the English courts should act as the policemen of work practices worldwide, hoewever much sympathy we may feel for a claimant personally.

In short, the boardrooms of corporate Britain, and even more those of their liability insurers, may well see some sighs of relief, if not discreet socially-distant celebrations, in the next few days.

Apparent good order and condition: apparent to whom?

Shippers are in the nature of things in a position to know rather more about a cargo they are shipping than the carrier who transports them. This can cause problems, as appears from the Court of Appeal’s decision a couple of days ago in Noble Chartering v Priminds Shipping [2021] EWCA Civ 87. The Tai Prize, a 73,000 dwt bulker owned by Tai Shing Maritime, was voyage-chartered by Priminds from time-charterers Noble to carry a cargo of Brazilian soya beans from Santos to Guangzhou in southern China. They presented clean bills of lading to agents who signed it on behalf of the head owners Tai Shing. On arrival the beans were mouldy and damp; this was due to the fact they had been shipped too wet, something which the master had had no reason to suspect, but which Priminds ought to have realised.

The consignees sued Tai Shing in China and got $1 million (in round figures). Tai Shing claimed in turn from Noble, who settled the claim for $500,000. Noble then claimed this sum from Priminds. They relied on their right of indemnity under the charter and an allegation that a dangerous cargo had been shipped, and also argued that the bill of lading that Priminds had sent for signature had been inaccurate, since a cargo which Priminds had had reason to know was over-wet could not be said to have been shipped in apparent good order and condition. The first two claims were rejected by the arbitrator, and nothing more was heard of them; but the arbitrator allowed the third claim. HHJ Pelling on a s.69 appeal held that she had been wrong to do so (see [2020] EWHC 127 (Comm)). Noble appealed.

The issue was simple. “Apparent good order and condition” means good order and condition “as far as meets the eye” (e.g. Slesser LJ in Silver v Ocean SS Co [1930] 1 K.B. 416, 442). But whose hypothetical eye matters here? The master’s, or that of the shipper presenting the bill? The Court of appeal had no doubt: upholding HHJ Pelling, it decided that it was the former. The master here had had no reason to suspect anything wrong with the soya beans in Santos; Tai Shing had there therefore been entitled (and indeed bound) to sign a clean bill. It followed that the clean bill presented had been correct and not misleading, and equally that Priminds had not been in breach.

The arbitrator’s decision on this had, we suspect, been seen by most as heterodox. We agree, and join what we suspect will be the majority of shipping lawyers in welcoming the Court of Appeal’s decision. It is worth making three points, however.

First, this is actually a hard case, even though it does not make bad law. It is difficult not to have some sympathy for the head owners (and through them Noble). On any normal understanding of the law the head owners, having issued entirely legitimate clean bills, were not liable to the receivers at all. It is perhaps tactful not to inquire too closely into how judgment was given against them for $1 million. Priminds, by contrast, were pretty clearly liable for a breach of contract in shipping wet beans. One can see why the head owners’ P&I Club might have felt sore at becoming piggy-in-the-middle and bearing a loss that by rights ought to have fallen on the shippers who escaped scot-free.

Incidentally, it is worth noting one possibility in this respect. A consignee not infrequently has the option, in a case where it is alleged that a clean bill was improperly issued, to sue either the carrier for failing to deliver a cargo in good condition, or his seller for breach of contract in not shipping it in like good condition. It is in most cases more convenient to sue the carrier, if necessary by threatening to arrest the ship at the discharge port. Nevertheless all may not be lost for P&I interests. It seems at least arguable that they may be able to lay off at least some of the risk by bringing contribution proceedings against the seller as a person who, if sued by the consignee, might also have been liable for the same loss. They do not even have to show that they were in fact liable to the consignee: merely that the claim alleged against them was good in law (see s.1(4) of the Civil Liability (Contribution) Act 1978).

Thirdly, Males J in the Court of Appeal at [57] left open the possibility of the liability of a shipper who presented clean bills when he actually knew of hidden defects in the cargo. This will have to remain for decision on another day. But it is certainly hard to have much sympathy for such a shipper: particularly since there are suggestions that a carrier who knows that a cargo is defective cannot legitimately issue a clean bill merely by looking complacently at impeccable outside packaging and then sanctimoniously turning a Nelsonian blind eye to the horrors he knows lurk beneath it (see e.g. Atkinson J in Dent v Glen Line (1940) 67 Ll.L.L.R. 72, 85).

Got a claim against a subsidiary but would like to go against the parent? We have some bad news.

You have an important ongoing contract with X, a subsidiary of a major foreign conglomerate Y. Then Y re-organises its business in a way that doesn’t involve you. X tells you it is regretfully going to break its contract. Obviously you can sue X; but can you sue Y as well? The result of this morning’s deision of the Court of Appeal in Kawasaki Kisen Kaisha Ltd v James Kemball Ltd [2021] EWCA Civ 33 is that in practice, in the vast majority of cases the answer is No.

Shipping lawyers will know the background. KKK a couple of years ago completed a reorganisation of its business; the container side was merged down into ONE, a joint venture with a couple of ex-competitors. Before the reorganisation, ancillary trucking etc in Europe had been organised by a sub-subsidiary of KKK called K-Euro, which had signed up the claimant JKL to do the haulage. This arrangement was now redundant, and K-Euro told JKL it would not be performing further.

JKL seems to have had a clear breach claim against K-Euro, but was not satisfied with it. History and legal confidentiality do not relate why, but there may have been doubts about K-Euro’s long-term solvency and/or a troublesome limitation of liability clause in the JKL – K-Euro contract. Be that as it may, JKL sued KKK for inducing a breach of contract, and sought to serve out in Japan. Teare J allowed this (see [2019] EWHC 3422 (Comm)); but the Court of Appeal disagreed, on the basis that on the evidence the claim had no realistic prospect of success..

The difficulty was twofold. First, despite the existence of a relationship of corporate control, and indeed substantial overlapping directorships, as between KKK and K-Euro, there was no element of persuasion or inducement by the former of the latter. KKK had not induced or persuaded K-Euro to break any contract. Instead, it had been a matter not so much of persuasion as practical compulsion: KKK had reorganised its business wholesale, with the inevitable (and admittedly entirely foreseen) result that K-Euro was forced to break the old arrangement. That, said the Court of Appeal, was something different. Furthermore, inducement of breach of contract required the defendant in some sense to have aimed his actions against the claimant. But here KKK had in no sense aimed its act at JKL, as might have been the case had it told K-Euro directly to appoint another haulier in its stead: instead, the loss to JKL had been, as it were, mere collateral damage.

This seems right. True, the suggested distinction between persuasion and compulsion needs to be taken with some care: if I threaten never to deal with X again unless X breaks his contract with you, I remain liable under Lumley v Gye (1853) 2 E & B 216, and pointing out that I bullied X rather than gently cajoling him will do me no good at all. Perhaps it is better expressed as the difference between the defendant who at least in some way desires the breach of contract, if only as a means to an end, and is liable, and the defendant who knows the result will be a breach but is otherwise indifferent, who is not. But the precise drawing of the line can be left to another day.

What we are left with is what we said at the beginning. If you contract with a subsidiary company, your chances of visiting the consequences of a breach of contract by the latter on its parent concern are low. As, at least in the view of this blog, they should be. If you contract with one entity, then generally it is to that entity that you should look if something goes wrong: to give you a cause of action against some other part of the corporate pyramid, you should need to show something fairly egregious – like a deliberate subornation of breach. Nothing short of that will, or should, do.

Upstream gas sales: of capacities and counterfactuals

Lack of unambiguous drafting in a gas sales contract landed three hydrocarbon giants in the Court of Appeal today; it also raised a nice point about damages and counterfactuals.

In British Gas v Shell UK [2020] EWCA Civ 2349, Shell and Esso agreed to supply, and BG to buy on a take-or-pay basis, a minimum daily quantity of gas (appearing in the forest of acronyms typical of hydrocarbon contracts as a TRDQ, or Total Reservoir Daily Quantity). The sellers controlled a couple of reservoirs which, together with others, were connected to the well-known Bacton terminal in Norfolk. As might be expected, gas from all the connected reservoirs was commingled before it came on shore, and the owners of the various reservoirs, including the sellers, had a practice of “borrowing” gas from one another to meet variations in demand. In order to protect BG’s interests, the sellers in addition undertook under Clause 6.4 of the contract to “provide and maintain a capacity (herein referred to as the ‘Delivery Capacity’) to deliver Natural Gas from the Reservoirs” amounting to 130% of the relevant daily quantity. If the capacity was reduced, then the sellers had a right to reduce the TRDQ proportionately.

As capacity in the North Sea ran down, the sellers’ capacity to supply from their own reservoirs dipped below the magic figure of 130%, though if you took into account their capacity to borrow gas the capacity remained adequate. BG saw an opportunity to sue the sellers. It argued that (1) “capacity” meant capacity from the sellers’ own reservoirs, excluding borrowed gas; and (2) had the sellers reduced the TRDQ to 100/130 of the reduced capacity, it would have bought in all excess requirements more cheaply elsewhere.

The Court of Appeal held for BG on (1): capacity on an ordinary interpretation meant capacity from the sellers’ own resources, not third parties’, so that the sellers were in breach. On damages, however, it held that BG had suffered no loss. The sellers had had a right, but no duty, to reduce the TRDQ in line with the total capacity; they had not done so; and the fact that they might have avoided being in breach of the 130% stipulation had they done so was beside the point.

The decision in (1) seems right as a matter of interpretation, and also sensible: apart from anything else, capacity clauses exist to assure certainty of supply, and would be somewhat devalued if they took into account possible arrangements that the seller might enter into with third parties.

The damages point is an awkward one, as is always the case with the fiendish counterfactual question “what would have happened if the defendant hadn’t been in breach?” It turns, it is suggested, on a proper interpretation of the sellers’ contractual obligation. Was it (i) to maintain a capacity to supply amounting to at least 130/100 of the TRDQ, or (ii) to set a TRDQ amounting at most to 100/130 of its capacity to supply (not quite the same thing)? Given the provision that there was a right but no duty to reduce the TRDQ in line with capacity, the latter answer seems correct. If so it follows, at least in the view of this blog, that BG’s claim against the sellers for substantial damages was rightly rejected as a claim for failing to do what they had not been bound to do in the first place.

Just one more thing. Before you file this case away as a useful piece of ammunition on the damages point, remember that in every case of this sort, the answer – and often many millions of dollars – is likely to turn on a careful reading of the underlying contract. A decision on one particular piece of wording may well not be a reliable guide to another.

When will a court say “Don’t draw down that bond …” ?

How easy should it be to stop a beneficiary claiming on a performance bond or standby letter of credit? Two cases reported this week (though one was actually decided about ten weeks ago) lead to slightly divergent results.

The first case, decided on Thursday under the name ETC Export Trading v AplasImporter [2020] EWHC 3229 (QB), revolved around what one might diplomatically call a somewhat rum demand under a performance bond. Under a contract containing an English law and London arbitration clause, Swiss sellers agreed to sell $21 million-odd worth of wheat to Aplas, an Ethiopian importer, to be paid for by letter of credit, with (as usual) no duty in the seller to perform unless and until the credit had been opened. In addition the seller was required to open a 10% performance bond in favour of Aplas, Aplas expressly agreeing not to invoke or claim under the bond unless the seller was in breach.

The seller duly instructed its bank, BNP, to open the performance bond. For reasons unexplained, this was done rather indirectly: an outfit called Berhan opened the actual bond, receiving a counterguarantee from Commerzbank, which in turn received another counterguarantee from BNP.

As it happened the deal went off because Aplas never opened the necessary credit. Shortly later, however, Berhan made a demand on Commerzbank, alleging a demand against it by Aplas, though Aplas was to say the least evasive when asked whether it had actually made any such request. ETC was obviously concerned that it would lose something over $2 million, with little hope of recovery, if the demand was paid by Commerzbank and passed back to BNP. It sought an injunction against Aplas on the basis that Aplas would be in breach of contract were the bond to be called. The relevant order sought was an order to Aplas not itself to call in the bond, and to prevail upon Berhan not to take any steps to claim in its name against Commerzbank. ETC also sought an order against Berhan preventing it from making a claim.

ETC succeeded. Having rightly bulldozered away a rather tentative argument that the arbitration clause prevented the court intervening, Pepperall J decided that even if there was not a clear demonstration of fraud, there was a good arguable claim that Aplas would be in breach its obligation were a call to be made. In addition he injuncted Berhan from calling on Commerzbank, since in his view there was a good arguable case that there was no entitlement to payment under the original bond.

His Lordship was clearly right to accept that intervention was possible even where there was no clear case of fraud. Although generally speaking it is not a breach of contract to call on a bond where nothing is in fact owing, provided you do so in good faith (see eg Costain International v Davy McKee (London) Ltd, unrep., CA, 26.11.1990), an express obligation only to call it in when entitled to payment is on a different footing: see Sirius International Insurance v FAI General Insurance [2003] 1 WLR 2214 and more recently Simon Carves v Ensus UK [2011] EWHC 657 (TCC); [2011] B.L.R. 340. Slightly more interesting is the basis of the claim against Berhan, which was not in contractual privity with ETC. Although it is clearly a good idea for the court to be able to injunct unjustified calls on bonds right down the line of promises and counterguarantees, it is not entirely clear what the foundation of this right could be. Perhaps one should draw a discreet veil over that aspect of the case, but remind lawyers that there remains room for serious argument here.

More problematic, however, and certainly more significant, was Pepperall J’s use of words like “good arguable claim” as the standard for court intervention. This is problematical, in that the traditional standard for injuncting the beneficiary, as much as the provider, of a bond is the test sometimes called the “enhanced merits” test. Under that test, the claimant must proffer clear evidence plus strong corroboration. Otherwise, the reasoning goes, we lose the benefit of regarding the bond as effectively a cash substitute in the hands of the beneficiary.

Admittedly on the facts of ETC itself the distinction between the two tests probably didn’t matter, since it is difficuIt to avoid concluding that the drawdown was indeed clearly prohibited under the contract. But the point is an important one, and a different answer is suggested by Foxton J in the second case, decided last September, Salam Air v Latam Airlines [2020] EWHC 2414 (Comm).

Salam involved a claim on a standby letter of credit, similar in many ways to a performance bond, given to back rental payments under a dry aircraft lease. The lessee was an Omani airline in dire straits following COVID, that was desperate to escape the contract. (It even went so far as a quixotic, if hopeless, plea that the whole arrangement was frustrated by the effective closure of Omani skies to virtually all but cargo planes). The claim by the lessee was made against the lessor to prevent it operating the standby credit.

Foxton J was having none of it, and dismissed the application. This was unsurprising. On the facts the rentals remained owing, and even if they did not there was no express promise not to invoke the credit. It followed that the doctrine of autonomy applied as of course.

His Lordship did go on to say, however, that in his view all claims to prevent payment under letter- of-credit-type instruments, be they letters of credit proper, bonds or standby credits, were on principle subject to the “enhanced merits” test. Furthermore, this applied whether they were brought against the credit institution giving the bond or the beneficiary wishing to claim on it, and whether the basis of the claim was fraud or breach of an express undertaking not to claim under the instrument. (Although unable entirely to escape the Court of Appeal outlier in Themehelp v West [1996] QB 84 which might suggest the contrary, he essentially said it ought to be limited to almost identical facts). In other words, the beneficiary’s right to have the instrument treated as cash in his hands trumped any arguments based on breach of contract.

Which leaves us with the question: where there is an alleged express undertaking not to draw on an instrument, should we be talking “good arguable claim” or “enhanced merits”? The view of this blog is the latter. Absent a clear demonstration of a reason for unenforceability, such bonds should remain as good as cash in the bank, and subject to the doctrine of “pay now, argue later”. If businessmen don’t like that, then they shouldn’t agree to give bonds, or if they do they should provide for them to be operable only against some document that independently verifies the counterparty’s claim.