Warranty or Not?

Bluebon Ltd (in liquidation) v Ageas (UK) Limited, Aviva Insurance Ltd and another [2017] EWHC 3301 (Comm)

The assured, owners of the Star Garter Hotel at West Lothian, having purchased the property in December 2007, obtained an insurance policy from insurers, Ageas and Aviva, which incepted on 3 December 2009 for a period of 12 months. The insured property suffered loss by fire on 15 October 2010 and a claim was made. The insurers denied liability on the premise that the Electrical Installation Inspection Warranty was breached. The relevant term in the policy was worded as follows:

“It is warranted that the electrical installation be inspected and tested every five years by a contractor approved by the National Inspection Council for Electrical Installation (NICEIC) and that any defects be remedied forthwith in accordance with the Regulations of the Institute of Electrical Engineers.”

On the premise that the last electrical inspection at the Hotel had taken place in September 2003, the insurers argued that the policy was either void or suspended from the outset. In the case, the trial judge, Bryan, J, was required to determine:

  1. The proper construction of the Warranty – was the five-year period to be calculated from the date of the last electrical inspection, or from Policy inception?
  2. Was the Warranty a True Warranty, a Suspensive Warranty, or a Risk Specific Condition Precedent, and what was the consequence of a breach?

The proper construction of the warranty

The assured argued that the five year period should be calculated from the date the policy has been incepted. Taking into account the commercial purpose of the warranty, i.e. ensuring that the risk of fire is minimised (whilst also protecting the health and safety of the insured and the occupiers of the hotel), the judge rejected this contention. This objective can only be achieved if the electrical installation is inspected at regular intervals, e.g. every five years, and any defects identified are remedied. The judge also suggested that the contention of the assured, i.e. the installation inspected every 5 years from the inception of the policy, would make no commercial sense and not work in the context of a one year policy, like this one.

This outcome makes sense and the judgment is in line with recent authorities on the matter such as AC Ward & Son Ltd v. Catlin (Five) Ltd [2009] EWHC 3122 (Comm) and GE Frankona Reinsurance Ltd v. CMM Trust No 1400 (The Newfoundland Explorer) [2006] EWHC 429 (Admlty), analysed by the author in his contribution to the 4th Volume of The Modern Law of Marine Insurance (2016, Informa Law) “New Parameters in Construing Insurance Contracts”

Legal classification of the clause            

The insurers argued that the clause in question was a true warranty and accordingly in this case breach had the effect of rendering the policy void from inception as the warranty related to a period before the attachment of the risk. Alternatively, they argued that the clause was a “suspensive provision” and as the inspection had not been carried out in 2008, the cover was suspended from the outset, i.e. the insurer never came on the risk. Conversely, the assured argued that the clause was a “Risk-Specific Condition Precedent”- i.e. a term which required compliance in respect of risks relating to the electrical installation. Therefore, in case of breach the assured could not recover for liabilities that emerge from risks associated with the electrical installation but cover should be available for liabilities that emerge from other risks.

The assured’s contention was a novel one and essentially based on the premise that a clause could make compliance with a specific aspect of the risk condition precedent to liability. That is certainly possible but clear and apposite language is required to achieve such an outcome. That does not seem to be the case here and the trial judge finding in favour of the insurers expressed the view that the clause was a “suspensory provision”. In reaching this conclusion, he worked on the assumption that the clause was designed to ensure that the assured undertakes such an inspection immediately if there had been no such inspection in the last five years. In other words, he assumed that the intention of the clause was to encourage the assured to get the inspection done as soon as possible by suspending the cover until it is completed. The author is not certain that this was the original intention of the insurers. The insurers in all probability desired to assess the risk accurately at the outset by ensuring that they were insuring a property that had gone through electrical surveys at regular intervals. To the author, it was clear that the clause went to the root of the contract and bore materially on the risk of fire and damages would not have been an adequate remedy (these are all the attributes of a true warranty as highlighted by Rix, LJ in HIH Casualty & General Insurance v New Hampshire Insurance Co [2001] EWCA Civ 735, at [101]). In fact the judge himself appreciated that the term carried all these attributes! It is, therefore, arguable that this was a true warranty.

In the end, the judge’s classification of the clause as a “suspensory provision” had no impact on the outcome. In the present case, the cover was suspended from the outset as the electrical survey had not been concluded 5 years after the previous one by the time the policy had been incepted.

The outcome is in line with the recent trend in the judiciary, i.e. to avoid classifying terms as warranties due to the harshness of the remedy they attract in case of their breach. (see, for example, Sugar Hut Group v. Great Lakes Reinsurance (UK) Plc [2010] EWHC 2636 (Comm)) Of course, had the case been considered under the Insurance Act 2015 a different outcome could have been possible. Under s. 11 of the 2015 Act, the assured could possibly argue that this was a term designed to reduce the risk of a particular type (i.e. fire that is caused by electrical default) and the assured should be able to recover for the loss if he can show that its breach did not increase the risk of the loss which occurred in the circumstances in which it occurred.

It is worth noting that s. 11 is not available in cases where the term in question is designed to define the risk in a general way. The author does not think that the clause in question is of that nature but nevertheless one should be alert to the fact that this kind of disputes could arise under the new Act as s. 11 introduces a type of causation test from the backdoor (even though the Law Commissions were desperate to avoid such an outcome!). (for a more analytical evaluation on s. 11 and the effect of changes on law see- B. Soyer, “Risk Control Clauses in Insurance Law: Law Reform and the Future” (2016) Cambridge Law Journal 109)

CTL Assessment in Marine Insurance

The Swedish Club v Connect Shipping (The MV Renos) [2018] EWCA Civ 230

The insured vessel, the Renos, was on a laden voyage in the Red Sea in August 2012 when a fire broke out. The owners sought assistance and on 23 August a salvage agreement (in LOF form) was signed to deliver the vessel to a place of safety. The salvors invoked the SCOPIC clause immediately and brought the vessel to anchorage off the Suez Canal on 31 August. The owner’s surveyor inspected the vessel and estimated that the repair cost would be in the region of US$ 8 million. The insurer’s surveyor, on the other hand, valued the repair costs around US$ 5.527 million. It was a common ground between the assured and insurer that to be declared as a constructive total loss (CTL) under s. 60 of the Marine Insurance Act (MIA) 1906, the repair costs needed to be in excess of US$ 8 million.

The vessel was towed to a place of safety, the port of Adabiya (Egypt), by the end of September 2012.  There, the owners in conjunction with the insurer’s surveyors drew up a repair specification which was completed by the end of November. In December, the owners received several repair quotations ranging from US$ 2.8 million to US$ 9 million. Discussions over the repairs continued between the assured and insurer throughout January 2013 and ultimately the owners issued a notice of abandonment on 1 February 2013.

The insurers refused to accept the notice of abandonment on the premise that it was not given within a reasonable time after receipt of reliable information of the loss and a reasonable time for inquiry, as stipulated by s. 62(3) of the MIA 1906. The trial judge, Knowles, J, delivered the judgment on this point [2016] EWHC 1580 (Comm) in favour of the assured indicating that due to the complexity of the repairs required and contradictory information received from different surveyors as to the cost of repairs, it was understandable why it took until 1 February 2013 for the assured to give notice of abandonment. Therefore, it was held that the assured did not lose its right to abandon the vessel to underwriters under s. 62(3) of the MIA 1906.  The insurers appealed to the Court of Appeal on this point.

Another point of dispute was the type of costs that can be taken into account for the purposes of the CTL calculation. Relying on the wording of s. 60(2)(ii) of the MIA 1906, which stipulates that “in estimating the costs of repairs…. account is to be taken of the expense of the future salvage operations” the insurers argued, unsuccessfully before the trial judge, that the costs incurred prior to the date of date of the notice of abandonment should not be included. It was also argued that the payment due under the SCOPIC clause should not be taken into account in estimating the costs of repairs. This argument was also rejected. The insurers also appealed against these findings to the Court of Appeal.

The Court of Appeal’s decision is momentous especially on the issue of calculation of cost of repairs for identifying whether CTL can be declared on the premise that “the cost of repairing the damage would exceed the value of the ship when repaired”.  Hamblen, LJ, who delivered the judgment of the Court of Appeal, was of the opinion that the relevant date for calculating the costs of repair for this purpose was the date of the casualty. The reference to “future” in s. 60 (2)(ii) was justified on the premise that this was a word of inclusion rather than exclusion making it clear that future costs should be taken into account alongside those already incurred. This certainly makes sense considering how matters progress in practice. Once a casualty arises, the first consideration of any owner is to appoint a salvor to assist his ship rather than sending a notice of abandonment to their hull insurers just in case the casualty is serious and the cost of repair (including salvage cost) is high enough to justify abandoning the insured vessel to underwriters. At that stage, the assured simply does not possess adequate information to be able to make a decision as to whether to send a notice of abandonment or not.

The decision of the Court of Appeal on the SCOPIC expenses could prove to be more controversial. In the present case, the cost of the salvage operation was around US$ 1.2 million for the notional Art. 13 salvage award and US$ 1.428 million in respect of SCOPIC paid over and above the Art. 13 award. It was the contention of the insurers that the SCOPIC costs should not be taken into account as costs within s. 60(2)(ii) of the MIA 1906 as the SCOPIC remuneration was conceptually different from Art. 13 award payable and not payable under the hull and machinery policy. Affirming the first instance judgment, Hamblen, LJ, rejected this contention. He was of the opinion that the benefit that was conferred on the insured property by the SCOPIC services could not be easily divorced from the benefit under Art. 13 award. Put differently, had there been no SCOPIC element, the insured vessel would presumably have been declared economically unsalvageable and, therefore, a wreck. Therefore, in determining whether the vessel had become a CTL it should be disregarded which insurer (hull and machinery insurer or P & I Club) pays which part of the salvage award. The author understands the reasoning behind this decision. But it ultimately means that in determining whether CTL under a hull and machinery policy has arisen, costs which do not fall for indemnity under that policy (i.e. SCOPIC award) should be taken into account. One might regard this outcome counter-intuitive and even slightly peculiar and it is possible that insurers might wish to reverse this position by adding clauses to the contracts in future to the effect that SCOPIC reward should not be taken into account in calculating costs under s. 60(2)(ii) of the MIA 1906.

The decision of the Court of Appeal on the point whether the assured had lost their right to abandon the vessel to them under s. 62(3) of the MIA 1906 does not set a precedent but is a good illustration of the difficulties that can emerge after a casualty in determining whether notice of abandonment was given in a reasonable amount of time. On this point too, the Court of Appeal affirmed the judgment of the first instance judge. Hamblen, LJ, stressed that in determining whether notice of abandonment was given in a reasonable time the factual context needed to be examined carefully. The nature of the casualty in this case meant that obtaining reliable information about the loss would inevitably be complex and take time. Also, given that the repairs required were likely to be substantial and complex, it would have been very difficult to have reliable information as to loss until quotations from various shipyards had been received. Such quotations were not received until early December. Furthermore, insurers on several occasions challenged the findings of the assured’s surveyor making it rather difficult for the assured to have reliable information to make a decision as to whether they would abandon their interest to the insurer or not. Hamblen, LJ, concluded on this point at [58] by stating “…the Insurers chose at the time to carry out their own detailed surveys so as to produce their own repair specification and quotations for repair costs, which they relied upon to demonstrate that the Vessel was not a CTL. They shared that information with the Owners, insisted on its correctness, and can hardly complain if it is taken into account in considering whether there was reliable information of the loss.”

Independent Contractors Facing Unlimited Liability!

JD Irving Ltd v. Siemens Canada Ltd (The SPM 125) 2016 FC 287 (Federal Court of Canada)

 The shipowners, JDI, engaged a firm of marine consultants to prepare stability calculations in respect of the loading of a cargo of large industrial equipment on and off the barge SPM125. During the loading process, the cargo was damaged and the owner of the cargo brought an action against the carrier claiming damages (CAD$45,000,000). The cargo owner also brought an action against the firm of marine consultants and the naval architect (who was the principal of that firm and had carried out the calculations) for the same amount.

The question that arose in this case was whether the firm of consultants had a right to limit their liability under the Convention on Limitation of Liability for Maritime Claims 1976, as amended by the Protocol of 1996, which has been incorporated into Canadian law by Part 3 of the Marine Liability Act.

Article 1(4) of the Convention stipulates:

If any claims set out in Article 2 are made against any person for whose act, neglect or default the shipowner or salvor is responsible, such person shall be entitled to avail himself of the limitation of liability provided for in this Convention.

There is no firm judicial reasoning on this point and differing opinions have been expressed in text books. The Court has subscribed to the view that Article 1(4) would afford limitation to a person if the shipowner or salvor has vicarious liability for the actions of that person. This would be the case when the negligence of a master or crew member gives rise to a claim by a third party against the owner or salvor. The crew or master in that case would accordingly have a right to limit their liability under the Convention. However, the relationship between an employer and an independent contractor would not usually give rise to a claim for vicarious liability and on that basis, such contractors are not afforded a right to limit their liability under Article 1(4) of the Convention. Applying this reasoning, it was held that the marine consultants in the present case could not enjoy the right of limitation.

The decision is a significant one as it adopts a new yardstick in determining whose actions a shipowner and/or salvor is responsible for in the context of the application of Article 1(4) of the Limitation Convention 1976 as amended by 1996 Protocol. The relevant party is able to limit its liability if the shipowner and/or salvor has vicarious liability for the actions of that party. Apart from marine consultants, classification societies, freight forwarders and logistics experts are likely to fall under this category. The judgment is not binding on English courts but obviously its reasoning needs to be considered carefully when the issue does arise, in addition, it sends a strong warning to the liability insurers of independent contractors as lack of the prospect of limitation would mean a huge increase in the exposure that they might face!

 

Farewell to the “Fraudulent Devices” Doctrine!

The recent decision of the Supreme Court in Versloot Dredging BV v. HDI Gerling Industrie Versicherung (The DC Merwestone) [2016] UKSC 45 has hit the insurance market like a bombshell! For more than a decade, it has been assumed that if a fraudulent device (such as a “lie”) is used to promote an honest claim, as long as the device used is material in the sense that it is likely to provide an advantage to the assured in securing a settlement, the claim will be treated as a “fraudulent” one. The Supreme Court ruled with a majority (4:1) that this is not the case!

The facts are relatively straightforward. The assured’s vessel, The DC Merwestone, suffered a flooding incident in January 2010. The incident resulted in irreparable damage to her engine, located at the aft end, even though water ingress was through the bow thruster space at the forward end of the vessel. The assured claimed from its hull insurer for the cost of replacing the damaged engine. The coverage defences put forward by the underwriters were rejected by the first instance judge, Popplewell, J, but he held that the assured had forfeited its otherwise valid claim as he used fraudulent devices in advancing said claim. During the casualty investigation, the underwriters’ solicitors sought the assured’s explanation for the ingress, its spread from the bow thruster room to the engine room and the reason why the crew were unable to control it using the vessel’s pumps. The assured’s General Manager responded in a letter which contained a representation that the crew had reported that they had heard a bilge alarm (which would have alerted the crew to the flooding) at noon on the day of the casualty but had failed to investigate the alarm on the basis that its sounding had been attributed to the rolling of the vessel. The representation was untrue in that the crew had never heard or reported a noon alarm and had never given an explanation for not investigating. This representation was held to be a reckless untruth.

The majority of the Court – Lord Sumption, Lord Clarke, Lord Hughes and Lord Toulson – appreciating that this is essentially a policy question considered it to be “a step too far” and “disproportionately harsh” to deprive an assured of his claim by reason of his fraudulent conduct if at trial years later it turns out that the fraudulent device used at the claims stage had been unnecessary because the claim was in fact always recoverable. Their Lordships seem to be influenced by the fact that an assured utilising fraudulent devices to advance his claim still has a genuine belief in the accuracy of the claim whilst the same cannot be said for an assured who creates the loss in order to make a claim or who exaggerates the extent of his claim. It is worth noting that Lord Mance delivered a dissenting judgment arguing that “Abolishing the fraudulent devices rule means that claimants pursuing a bad, exaggerated or questionable claim can tell lies with virtual impunity.”

This decision means that an insurer will not be able to defend against a claim in a case where the assured uses fraudulent invoices to secure a quick settlement for his claim (see, for example, Sharon’ Bakery (Euorope) Ltd v. AXA Insurance UK plc [2011] EWHC 210 (Comm)) unless, of course, the policy contains an express clause indicating that the claim will be forfeited if promoted by making use of fraudulent devices. Such express terms are common in fire policies but perhaps, in the light of this decision, insurers should consider incorporating them into marine and energy policies as well. Institute Hull Clauses 2003 could lead the way. Clause 45.3 stipulates:

“It shall be a condition precedent to the liability of the Underwriters that the Assured shall not at any stage prior to the commencement of legal proceedings knowingly or recklessly
… mislead or attempt to mislead the Underwriters in the proper consideration of a claim or the settlement thereof by relying on any evidence which is false
… conceal any circumstance or matter from the Underwriters material to the proper consideration of a claim or a defence to such a claim.”

Carriers Be Aware!!!! (Contribution Claims Fall outside the Athens Regime)

All personal injury, loss of life or loss of / damage to luggage claims must be brought against the carrier (contracting or performing) under Art 14 of the Convention Relating to the Carriage of Passengers and their Luggage by Sea (Athens Convention), however, the Convention does not purport to be a complete Code governing all liabilities of sea carriers – for example, it is silent both with regard to claims of passengers against the carrier in cases of cancellation of the scheduled voyage and with rights of recourse as between carriers and other parties.

What about a contribution claim brought by a third party against the carrier? Would such claims be subject to the time bar provisions of the Athens Convention? This was the primary discussion point in Feest v. South Strategic Health Authority and Another [2015] EWCA Civ 708. In August 2008, the claimant sustained a spinal injury while on a boat tour with her work colleagues (as part of a team building exercise) in the Bristol Channel. She sued her employer and sought damages for her injury. Her employer then issued a Part 20 claim against the owner of the boat for contribution under s. 1(1) of the Civil Liability (Contribution) Act 1978. Granting the application of the owner for a summary judgment on the Part 20 claim, the district judge dismissed the claim on the ground that it was time bared (as it was brought later than 2 years, stipulated by Art 16 of the Athens Convention).  The defendant employer’s appeal was dismissed by Judge Havelock-Allan QC, sitting as a judge of the Queen’s Bench of the Bristol Mercantile Court. The defendant then appealed to the Court of Appeal which reversed the said judgment.  It was held that a claim for contribution is autonomous from the Athens Convention and it derives from the English domestic statute entitlement to contribution. On that basis, the time bar provisions of the Athens Convention would not apply to a contribution claim. An alternative argument, developed by the counsel for the carrier to the effect that Art 16 of the Athens Convention extinguishes the right for an action rather than bars the remedy of court proceedings, was also rejected by the Court of Appeal. This might come as a surprise to continental lawyers as, in continental jurisdictions, time bar provisions usually have the effect of extinguishing the right to any claim (including contribution rights). However, unlike Article 29 of the Warsaw Convention, Article 16 of the Athens Convention does not address this issue with any real definitive language and leaves it to national law to determine the effect of the time bar provision. In English law, the effect of time bar provisions is normally to deny the plaintiff a right of action after a certain period has elapsed but the right is not extinguished.

From the perspective of international maritime law, the outcome of the Court of Appeal is disappointing but the fact remains that the UK legal system is dualist in nature and in the absence of clear language used in an international convention, disputes as to interpretation of provisions of a convention will be resolved by the application of the national law, which is, of course, what happened here!