The Existence of a Possessory Lien in respect of a Claim would Affect the Priority to be Given to the Costs Incurred in Enforcing that Claim in an Admiralty Action in Rem

It is well settled that in actions against the proceeds of sale of property arrested in rem, costs have the same priority as the claim in respect of which they have been incurred. However, it remains uncertain whether the proper application of this rule should result in costs being accorded the same priority as a possessory lien or a statutory lien where a claimant has a possessory lien over an arrested ship in respect of a claim which, but for the possessory lien, would have priority only as a statutory lien in admiralty. In the recent case of Keppel FELS Ltd v Owner of the vessel “SONGA VENUS” and Songa Offshore SE (The Songa Venus) [2020] SGHC 74, the Singapore High Court addressed this issue.

The claimants, Keppel FELS Ltd, provided various services to the vessel Songa Venus, including repairs, modifications, supply of materials, equipment and berthing. The owners of the vessel failed to pay for the said services, and so Keppel FELS Ltd commenced these proceedings, arrested the vessel, and obtained an order for the vessel to be appraised and sold without prejudice to their possessory lien over the vessel, if any. After the vessel was sold for US$3,749,463.14, Keppel FELS Ltd obtained final judgment for the sum of US$1,169,370 with interest. The court also held that Keppel FELS Ltd had a possessory lien over the vessel in respect of the portion of its claim relating to repairs, modifications, supply of various materials, equipment and services. The sums amounted to US$328,723 plus costs. The intervener, Songa Offshore SE, commenced a separate in rem action against the vessel for sums outstanding under a seller’s credit agreement which was secure by a second preferred mortgage over the vessel. Songa Offshore SE obtained a final judgment for the sum of US$34,200,000.

Against this backdrop, Keppel FELS Ltd filed an application to determine the priority of the relevant claims and payment out of the proceeds of sale. The parties were not in dispute as to the priority of the substantive claims. The dispute revolved around the costs of the claims. Keppel FELS Ltd argued that costs attributable to the portion of their claim for which they had a possessory lien should be accorded the same priority, ranking before the mortgage. However, Songa Offshore SE contended that all costs of Keppel FELS Ltd’s claim should be granted the priority of a statutory lien and rank below the mortgage.

The court found in favour of Keppel FELS. It explained that ‘considerations of justice and equity required the court to accord the disputed costs the same priority as the portion of Keppel FELS’ claim for which it had a possessory lien’. Particular emphasis was placed on the fact that, for the possessory lien holder to surrender the ship to the admiralty court, the admiralty court has to give an undertaking to put the possessory lien holder ‘exactly in the same position as if he/she had not surrendered the ship’. In principle, a possessory lien holder retains possession of the res until he/she has been paid in full, in return for its release. He/she does not have to initiate any legal proceedings to enforce the possessory lien and, thus, does not incur any legal costs. However, whenever the possessory lien holder has to surrender the ship to the admiralty court, he/she would have to initiate in rem proceedings to satisfy his/her claim through the judicial sale of the vessel. This implies that, for the admiralty court to fulfil its undertaking to put the possessory lien holder ‘exactly in the same position as if he/she had not surrendered the ship’, the admiralty court should protect the costs incurred by the possessory lien holder when bringing a claim in rem to the same extent as the possessory lien itself.

COVID-19: An Occupational Disease?

On April 28, 2020, the global trade union movement urged governments and occupational health and safety bodies around the world to recognise SARS-CoV-2 as an occupational hazard, and COVID-19 as an occupational disease.

In practice, this means that the employer’s duty to take reasonable measures to protect the health and safety of their employees will cover COVID-19 related risks. Furthermore, it means that employees will be able to benefit from compensation schemes provided for those injured, or the dependants of the deceased, whenever there has been injury or death due to work-related accidents or occupational diseases.

Recognising COVID-19 as an occupational disease will be crucial to ‘key workers’, such as seafarers. For that it will ensure that adequate preventive measures are adopted and, if they contract COVID-19 at work, that existing compensation and liability regimes remain applicable.

PASSENGERS SUE CRUISE LINES FOR NEGLIGENCE OVER COVID-19 OUTBREAK

Ever since January 2020, it became evident that COVID-19 will place significant hurdles on cruise ship operators. The quarantine of approximately 2,500 passengers on board Diamond Princess off the coast of Japan that led to 700 confirmed cases of coronavirus was the first hard knock on the cruise industry. However, this was not enough to urge cruise ship operators to temporarily suspend their activities to minimise new transmissions on cruise vessels, or at the very least, to implement policies to prevent similar outbreaks.

Cruise ship operators continued their business as usual for more than a month. It was only mid-March, when some of the major cruise ship operators announced the voluntary suspension of scheduled cruises amid the severity of the public health crisis. Arguably, this delayed response on the part of cruise ship operators led to more passengers being exposed to COVID-19 with several passengers testing positive on cruise vessels around the world.

It now comes as no surprise that several claims have been brought against cruise ship operators over their response to COVID-19 outbreak. In early April, former passengers of the cruise ship Grand Princess filed lawsuits against the ship’s operators in federal courts of the US, claiming negligence on the part of the company in failing to ensure the health and safety of its passengers. The claims ask for compensatory and punitive damages for lost earnings, medical expenses and mental distress.

The Grand Princess departed on February 21 for a cruise from San Francisco to Hawaii. Before sailing to Hawaii, the ship made a 10-day round-trip to Mexico, and 62 passengers and more than 1,000 crewmembers continued on the voyage to Hawaii. On February 25, a man, who had been on the Mexico trip, died of the coronavirus. At this point, some members of the ship’s crew had already shown COVID-19 related symptoms. The Grand Princess turned back to the US mainland and skipped a planned stop in Mexico. On 5 March, passengers were quarantined in their cabins. However, COVID-19 had already been spreading on the ship, and 103 would ultimately test positive, with two passengers and one crew member now dead. On 9 March, passengers were moved into quarantine ashore.

The claims allege that the cruise ship operators were negligent in failing to inform Hawaii passengers that several passengers on the Mexico trip had shown COVID-19 related symptoms, failing to disinfect the ship thoroughly after the Mexico trip, and failing to screen passengers and crew before departing for Hawaii. In this respect, the claims mention that on the Grand Princess, the ship’s crew only asked passengers boarding the ship to ‘fill out a piece of paper confirming they were not sick’. The claims further allege that the cruise ship operators were negligent during the cruise in failing to inform passengers about the former passenger’s death and failing to quarantine passengers in their cabins on February 25.

Like in all personal injury claims, the liability of cruise ship operators for a passenger’s illness, injury or death will turn upon two legal questions. The first is whether the company was in any way negligent. In this respect, the claimants will have to prove that the ship operators did not exercise reasonable skill and care to ensure the health and safety of their passengers. On the facts, this may be possible, especially if it is proven that the company knew that several passengers on the Mexico trip had contracted COVID-19 and failed to disinfect the ship or at least to warn passengers boarding the ship in San Francisco.

The second is whether the company’s negligence caused the passenger’s illness. That is more problematic because it is hard to trace the exact moment when a person is infected with COVID-19. According to the official guidance of the WHO, the incubation period of COVID-19 (i.e. the time between catching the virus and beginning to have symptoms of the disease) ranges from 1 to 14 days, most commonly around 5 days. It is, thus, possible that some passengers had already been infected with COVID-19 when boarding the Grand Princess on February 21. Nevertheless, an argument may revolve around the fact that the company allowed 1,000 potentially infected people to share confined space with approximately 2,000 potentially uninfected passengers.

Assuming that both these questions will be answered in favour of the claimants, then a further question will arise as to whether the passengers of Grand Princess were in any way negligent in contracting COVID-19. If so, the company will be able to benefit from the defence of contributory negligence.

It is, thus, interesting now to see whether these claims will actually reach the courts or whether they will be settled in private.

EU COMMISSION URGES MEMBER STATES TO DESIGNATE PORTS WHERE CREW CHANGES ARE FACILITATED DURING COVID-19 PANDEMIC

In response to the IMO recommendations for governments and relevant national authorities on the facilitation of crew changes and repatriations during the COVID-19 pandemic, the European Commission has now taken steps to facilitate and coordinate the efforts of Member States to enable crew changes in their ports.  

On guidelines published 8 April 2020, the European Commission urges Member States to designate ports for fast-track crew changes. The ports should be geographically dispersed so as to cover the Union and should be connected to operational airports and rail stations.

Given that transport connections are now heavily affected, the European Commission further urges Member States to envisage the possibility of dedicated flights and rail operations to ensure the transport connections for crew changes, allowing for swift travel and repatriations of seafarers.

Regarding the characteristics of these designated ports, the European Commission highlights that they should have nearby accommodation where seafarers could wait for arrival of the ship they should board or for their flight, train or ship if it does not leave on the same day. This accommodation should have adequate facilities to allow seafarers to undergo 14 days of quarantine before embarking and after disembarking if the Member State at hand requires this to protect public health. Finally, the ports should have accessible and adequate medical services available to seafarers when they embark, disembark and during their quarantine periods.

The European Commission clarifies here that seafarers who are nationals of third countries should also have access to adequate medical care and accommodation until their repatriation becomes possible. However, Member States may be entitled to request compensation from the shipowner. In this respect, the provisions of the Maritime Labour Convention, 2006, apply to ensure that accommodation and medical care should, in principle, be provided at no cost to seafarers.

The European Commission has also commented on the practice of extending the usual 11 months duration of a SEA stating that this should be the last resort, if repatriation is not possible. This is essential to ensure that fatigue does not detrimentally affect the mental health of seafarers and maritime safety.

As a final note, the European Commission stresses the need for the practice of designating ports where crew changes can take place safely during the COVID-19 pandemic to be shared with third countries to be implemented worldwide.

THE IMO CIRCULATES PRELIMINARY LIST OF RECOMMENDATIONS FOR GOVERNMENTS AND RELEVANT NATIONAL AUTHORITIES ON THE FACILITATION OF CREW CHANGES AND REPATRIATIONS DURING THE COVID-19 PANDEMIC

The COVID-19 pandemic is a global public health crisis, which places unprecedented restraints to the movement of seafarers for the purposes of crew changes and repatriations. In a circular letter issued on the 27th of March 2020, the IMO has distributed a preliminary list of recommendations for governments and relevant national authorities on the facilitation of crew changes and repatriations during the COVID-19 pandemic. Amongst other things, the IMO specifically urges governments to:

  • designate seafarers, regardless of nationality, as ‘key workers’ providing an essential service;
  • grant seafarers with any necessary and appropriate exemptions from national travel or movement restrictions in order to facilitate their joining or leaving ships;
  • accept, inter alia, official seafarers’ identity documents, discharge books, STCW certificates, seafarer employment agreements and letters of appointment from the maritime employer, as evidence of being a seafarer, where necessary, for the purposes of crew changes;
  • permit seafarers to disembark ships in port and transit through their territory (i.e. to an airport) for the purposes of crew changes and repatriation;
  • implement appropriate approval and screening protocols for seafarers seeking to disembark ships for the purposes of crew changes and repatriation; and
  • provide information to ships and crews on basic protective measures against COVID-19 based on World Health Organisation advice.

While these preliminary recommendations point towards the right direction, still there is a lot that needs to be considered. As recognised ‘key workers’, seafarers will be able to travel to and from a vessel, provided they carry at all times their professional documentation. However, seafarers, who sign off their ships at foreign ports, might not be able to be repatriated, despite their ‘key workers’ status. That is because many countries have now closed their international borders, and so commercial flights have been cancelled until further notice. In these circumstances, it will be up to the seafarers’ country of residency to take appropriate measures for their repatriation.

Furthermore, many countries have now adopted mandatory measures requiring people to self-isolate before they enter their territory depending on whether they had recently visited an affected country. Seafarers will have to adhere to these mandatory measures, irrespective of their ‘key workers’ status. That raises the question as to who should bear the cost for any expenses incurred by seafarers during self-isolation. According to regulation 2.5 of the MLC, 2006, shipowners should cover the costs of repatriation (i.e. travel expenses, food, clothing, accommodation, medical treatment etc) until seafarers are landed at the place of return (i.e. the agreed place under the SEA, the place at which seafarers entered into the SEA or the seafarers’ country of residency). Thus, seafarers who have to self-isolate awaiting repatriation at a foreign country should not bear any costs. It is, however, likely that seafarers who have to self-isolate at the place of return will have to bear the cost for any additional expenses.

Given these complexities, many shipowners now prefer to extend the SEAs instead of signing-off and repatriating crewmembers. However, this cannot be done without the consent of seafarers, unless, of course, the SEAs include a clause to that effect. In any case, any decisions as to the extension of the SEAs should not be taken lightly and should not prejudice the seafarers’ mental health and wellbeing.

THE FIRST ADMIRALTY CASE HEARD REMOTELY OWING TO COVID19 PANDEMIC

On 29 January 2020, the Admiralty Court made an order at the request of the claimant in Qatar National Bank QPSC v Owners of the Yacht Force India [2020] EWHC 103 (Admlty) that the yacht Force India be sold. The circumstances in which the order for the sale was granted were described in a previous post on this blog. See https://iistl.blog/2020/03/09/no-judgment-in-default-of-a-defence-in-in-rem-proceedings-against-an-arrested-ship-unless-the-court-is-satisfied-that-the-claim-has-been-proved/.

After twenty bids had been received by the Admiralty Marshal during the sale process, Qatar National Bank QPSC applied to the Court for an order to set aside the order for the sale. While the Admiralty Court declined to grant such order, it suspended the sale to enable a proper hearing to take place on notice to the interested parties. 

On 20 March 2020, the hearing took place by telephone as a result of the COVID19 pandemic, making Qatar National Bank QPSC v Owners of the Yacht Force India [2020] EWHC 719 (Admlty) the first case to be heard by the Admiralty Court remotely.

The Court decided to set aside the order for sale in the present case. That is because an independent third party paid the sums secured by the mortgage. As a result, the judicial sale of the yacht Force India was rendered unnecessary.

It may be worth noting here that the case at hand is exceptional in that the mortgage had been granted as additional security for a €27 million loan to finance the acquisition of a company which owned a property on an island off the coast of France. Thus, when the loan secured by the charge on the property was paid to Qatar National Bank QPSC, the smaller sum secured by the mortgage on the yacht was also discharged.

Indeed, the Admiralty Court emphasised the need for orders setting aside judicial sales of vessels to remain the exception rather than the norm, with a view to protecting its reputation and its ability in future cases to achieve a vessel’s market value when an order for sale is made.

NO JUDGMENT IN DEFAULT OF A DEFENCE IN IN REM PROCEEDINGS AGAINST AN ARRESTED SHIP UNLESS THE COURT IS SATISFIED THAT THE CLAIM HAS BEEN PROVED

In Qatar National Bank QPSC v Owners of the Yacht Force India [2020] EWHC 103 (Admlty), the claim arose out of a mortgage granted by Qatar National Bank QPSC over the yacht Force India as additional security for a €27 million loan to finance the acquisition of a company which owned a property on an island off the coast of France. The mortgage was limited to a principal amount of €5 million. Due instalments were not paid and the claimant, Qatar National Bank QPSC, served a notice of default in June 2018.

Two months later, Qatar National Bank QPSC issued in rem proceedings and arrested the yacht Force India. The defendants, Force India Ltd, did not appear at the trial. It was, however, apparent from a letter from their former solicitors to the Court dated 14 January 2020 that Force India Ltd were aware of the trial. Against this backdrop, Qatar National Bank QPSC applied for an order to strike out the defence if Force India Ltd did not attend the trial. Mr Justice Teare granted this order pursuant to CPR Part 39.3 (1).

His Justice explained, however, that, in a case concerning in rem proceedings against an arrested ship, it is not appropriate to grant judgment in default of a defence pursuant to CPR Part 61.9(3)(a)(iii), unless the Court is satisfied that the claim has been proved. That is because other parties may have an action in rem against the arrested vessel. Thus, their interests might be damaged if judgment is given without the claim having been proved. Furthermore, the Practice Direction to CPR Part 39 provides that the claimant must prove his/her claim where the trial proceeds in the absence of the defendant.

Accordingly, Mr Justice Teare examined the documents which proved the claim and gave judgment for the sums claimed. These included €5 million for the value of the mortgage plus interests and the costs of collection. In addition, ancillary orders were given for the yacht to be appraised and sold.

Want to Arrest in Singapore? If you’re Not Actually Malicious, Feel Free

For more than 150 years, the test for wrongful arrest of a vessel has been that of ‘malice’ and ‘gross negligence’ on the part of the arresting party, as first described in The Evangelismos (1858) 12 Moo PC 352. While this test remains unchallenged in England and Wales, other common law jurisdictions including, but not limited to, Australia, South Africa, and Singapore have questioned its validity. More recently, the so-called Evangelismos test came under scrutiny in the judgment of the Singapore High Court in Hansa Safety Services GmbH v The Owner of the Vessel, the “King Darwin” (The King Darwin) [2019] SGHC.

On 13 November 2018, the claimant, Hansa Safety Services GmbH, brought an action in rem for services rendered to the vessel, the King Darwin. The total sum of the claim was 5,864.00 euros. On the same day, Hansa Safety Services GmbH arrested the King Darwin pursuant to a warrant of arrest. On 19 November 2018, the owners of the King Darwin provided security and the vessel was released.

On 21 January 2019, the Insolvency Administrator of the owners of the King Darwin, Hendrik Gittermann, was granted leave to intervene in the action. In his summons, Hendrik Gittermann sought to set aside the warrant of arrest and obtain damages for wrongful arrest of the vessel from Hansa Safety Services GmbH.

On 21 March 2019, Hansa Safety Services GmbH served a Notice of Discontinuance which it had filed on 7 February 2019, fourteen days after service of the defence to it. The purpose of the Notice of Discontinuance was to rescind the action as a whole including the counterclaim for damages for wrongful arrest of the vessel from Hansa Safety Services GmbH.

On 22 March 2019, Hendrik Gittermann applied to strike out the Notice of Discontinuance on the ground that it is necessary to prevent injustice or an abuse of process of the Court. The Senior Assistant Registrar granted the application. Hansa Safety Services GmbH appealed.

Vincent Hoong JC dismissed the appeal and upheld the order to strike out the Notice of Discontinuance. According to Vincent Hoong JC, this was an appropriate case for the Court to exercise its inherent powers to strike out a Notice of Discontinuance to prevent injustice to Hendrik Gittermann. The time and effort that Hendrik Gittermann would expend in recommencing a claim for the wrongful arrest of the King Darwin from Hansa Safety Services GmbH, taken in conjunction with the uncertainty of the test to be applied when bringing a claim for damages for wrongful arrest outside of in rem proceedings, were sufficient to set aside the Notice of Discontinuance.

Hendrik Gittermann argued that, by discontinuing the action, Hansa Safety Services GmbH would deprive him of his right to pursue a claim for wrongful arrest, which must be pursued in the context of an in rem action by the arresting party. Vincent Hoong JC rejected this argument. Hendrik Gittermann could bring a claim for damages for wrongful arrest independently of any in rem action by the arresting party. Vincent Hoong JC, reviewing the judgments in The Wallet D Wallet [1893] P 202, Best Soar Ltd v Praxis Energy Agents Pte Ltd [2018] 3 SLR 423 and Congentra AG v Sixtenn Thirteen Marine Sa (The Nicholas M) [2009] 1 All ER 479 (Comm), explained that such claim could be brought under the tort of wrongful arrest, which has long been recognised by the English Courts.

Furthermore, Hendrik Gittermann argued that, were he to pursue a claim for wrongful arrest independently of any in rem action by the arresting party, the test to be applied is unclear. Vincent Hoong JC recognised that the Court of Appeal’s observations in The Kiku Pacific [1999] 2 SLR (R) 91 and The Vasiliy Golovin [2008] 4 SLR (R) 994 have raised arguments that the applicable test for pursuing a claim for wrongful arrest when an in rem action is discontinued and an independent action is brought should be that of ‘without reasonable or probable cause’, rather than ‘malice’, as suggested in The Evangelismos (1858) 12 Moo PC 352. Nevertheless, Vincent Hoong JC took the view that these observations were not enough to lay down a less stringent test and ‘malice’ would almost certainly be the relevant threshold.