US Supreme Court Rules- Warranty of Safety in Charterparties is an Absolute Obligation (Citgo Asphalt Refining Co v. Frescati Shipping Co Ltd)

The tanker, Athos I, was directed to a berth by her charterers at a terminal in Philadelphia in 2004. As the vessel was approaching the berth, she struck a submerged anchor. As a result, the vessel’s hull was damaged and some 263,000 gallons of crude oil spilled into the Delaware River. The cost of the clean-up operations was around US$180m.

The owners of the Athos I brought an action against the voyage charterer contenting that the charterer was in breach of its warranty to provide a safe port/safe berth for the ship to discharge the cargo and was therefore liable to reimburse the ship owner for the costs of the clean-up paid by them. The relevant provision in the charterparty provided:

‘…the vessel shall load and discharge at any safe place or wharf… which shall be designated and procured by the Charterer, provided the Vessel can proceed thereto, lie at, and depart therefrom always safely afloat, any lighterage being at the expense, risk and peril of the Charterer….’

safeport

The district court gave the judgment against the owners of the Athos I on the basis that the obligation of the charterer under the charterparty was to exercise due diligence in providing a safe berth/safe port and that was satisfied in the case. On appeal, the US Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit reversed the district court’s decision. In doing so, the Third Circuit aligned itself with the Second Circuit ignoring a case decided in 1990 by the Fifth Circuit (whereby it was held that a due diligence standard should be read into a charterer’s warranty of a safe berth/safe port).

The US Supreme Court (7-2) came to the conclusion that such a form clause commonly used in the industry must be construed as an express warranty of safety and imposes on the charterer an absolute duty to select and provide safe berth. The majority emphasized that the safe berth clause in the charterparty was clear and unambiguous.

The majority (an opinion delivered by Justice Sotomayor) rejected charterer’s that the safe berth clause imposes simply a duty to exercise due diligence. In their view, such a due diligence standard resonates more in tort, rather than contract. The parties could have adopted a due diligence standard explicitly in the safe berth clause, as they did elsewhere in the contract. The absence of similar language in the safe berth clause provides further evidence that the parties did not seek to imply such a limitation on the duty of the charterer.

The Supreme Court’s decision follows the traditional approach adopted by the English law with regard to warranty of safety of a port/berth (The Eastern City [1958] 2 Lloyd’s Rep 127) and will certainly be welcomed by the industry (i.e. shipowners) and, their hull underwriters who in most cases will end up pursuing charterers when a chartered vessel is damaged in a port/berth which turns out to be unsafe. It is worth to note that the judgment does not prevent this obligation from being watered down by a due diligence standard in a charterparty as long as clear and apposite wording is employed to this end.

Switch bills. Initial shipper off the hook for freight due under bill of lading.

 

The effect of switch bills with a new shipper in the second set has the effect of a novation of the initial contract contained or evidenced in the initial bill with the shipowner as carrier under the bill. So held Stevenson J in the Supreme Court of New South Wales in The Illawarra Fortune [2020] NSWSC 183. Both sets incorporated the freight payable under a voyage charterparty with the time charterer of the vessel. The initial shipper, whose parent company was the voyage charterer, ceased to be liable for unpaid freight once the second bills were issued naming a different shipper. Had the original bills not been switched the time charterer, as assignee of the shipowner’s rights under the bills of lading,  would have been able to sue the original shipper for freight due under the voyage charter with the shipper’s parent company.

When does time start to run for an indemnity claim?

 

 

In London Arbitration 1/20 owners claimed an indemnity from voyage charterers in respect of payment of funds by their P&I Club to satisfy a judgment on a cargo claim brought against them in Brazil. The owners’ claim was brought under an express indemnity provision in the charterparty, clause 10, which read:

“Bills of Lading shall be presented and signed by the Master as per the ‘Congenbill’ Bill of Lading form, Edition 1994, without prejudice to this Charter Party, or by the Owners’ agents provided written authority has been given by Owners to the agents, a copy of which is to be furnished to the Charterers. The Charterers shall indemnify the Owners against all consequences or liabilities that may arise from the signing of bills of lading as presented to the extent that the terms or contents of such bills of lading impose or result in the imposition of more onerous liabilities upon the Owners than those assumed by the Owners under this Charter Party.”

The relevant time line was that discharge took place in 2006, with a first instance decision in the Brazilian courts in August 2010 which held owners liable. In September 2017 this was upheld on appeal and in October 2017 funds were remitted to cargo interests to satisfy the judgment. Owners commenced arbitration proceedings against charterers in August 2018.

There were various competing dates for starting the firing gun for the running of the six years under the Limitation Act 1980. If time started when the claim arose, or after the first instance judgment, then owners’ arbitration would be clearly barred. However, if the relevant time were that of the appeal decision or the payment of the judgment soon after, then owners would be in time.

The tribunal, by a majority, declined to follow the decision of McNair J in Bosma v Larsen [1966] 1 Lloyd’s Rep 22 in which McNairJ held that the cause of action under clause 9 of the Baltime form arose at the date when the facts came into existence which created a liability of the owners to the cargo owners or their insurers. That date was the date when the cargo was discharged damaged. The case had not been overruled but had not been followed on two subsequent occasions at first instance, in particular in The Caroline P [1984] 2 Lloyd’s Rep 466, where Neill J said:

“I have therefore come to the conclusion, though not without hesitation, that the … indemnity … did not become enforceable by action until at the earliest the liability of the owners to the receivers had been ascertained by the court of first instance …”

In the majority’s view, Neill J was saying that he preferred to run time from the date of the court adjudication at the earliest rather than from the time of discharge. In their view time started running when owners paid the judgment in favour of cargo interests sometime between 27 September and 6 October 2017.

Unseaworthy ship, or just a careless crew?

If you were mown down by a car, you would presumably think it a tad surreal if the driver got out, looked you over, and walked away, saying “I don’t have to pay you a penny. There was nothing wrong with my car. I merely drove it very badly.” Unless, of course, you were a lawyer dealing with carriage of goods by sea. In that case you would understand perfectly; after all, this merely reflects the distinction you will have imbibed with your mother’s milk between Article III r 1 and Article IV r 2(a) of the Hague-Visby Rules. The one says that anyone’s failure to show due diligence to make your vessel seaworthy makes you liable even when it’s not your fault; the other, that negligence in navigation excuses you from liability even where it was your fault.

Drawing the distinction between these has never been easy. The latest episode comes in the Court of Appeal’s decision today in The CGM Libra [2020] EWCA Civ 293. A sizeable container ship sailed from Xiamen in China (a pleasant subtropical spot which older readers may remember as Amoy) in the wee hours and grounded, rather expensively, a shortish distance outside. The reason she grounded was that when preparing the passage plan the owners had indolently failed to transcribe a Notice to Mariners indicating that outside the strict boundaries of the fairway the soundings on local charts were completely unreliable.

In a general average claim by owners against cargo, the issue arose: was this a matter of navigational fault (owners not liable and hence entitled to contribution) or unseaworthiness (owners liable and thus barred)? Teare J held for unseaworthiness. Owners appealed, on the basis that failing to make a note of possible shallows so as to avoid them was a clear navigational error. But the Court of Appeal was having none of it. Even if the failure to prepare an adequate passage plan was a navigational sin, there was no reason why it could not also amount to unseaworthiness in so far as it was due to someone’s negligence before the voyage began.

The holding itself is pretty unexceptionable. If lack of proper charts on board at the start of the voyage is unseaworthiness, it would be odd if the same did not apply to the absence of a proper passage plan, this having been regarded as more or less as essential for a dozen years or so at the time of the events in question.

On the other hand, cases like this do begin to raise the question: have we now reached the point that where there is any negligence before the voyage, there will be a case of unseaworthiness so as to leave the Article IV(2)(a) defence in effect a dead letter? Some incautious words suggest we might have. At [61] Flaux LJ was sceptical whether unseaworthiness had to stem from an attribute of the vessel at all, and Haddon-Cave LJ seems to have suggested that the distinction was simply temporal: negligence before departure is unseaworthiness, for owners’ account, and later negligence for cargo’s account.

But this would look odd, apart from being for obvious reasons unwelcome to P&I interests. Does it make sense to say that a vessel is unseaworthy even though we cannot say what it is about it that makes it unseaworthy? It seems doubtful. One strongly suspects that The CGM Libra will not be the last word, and that we may well see more litigation before too long aimed at clearing up the awkward distinction between bad ships and careless crews.

No indemnity for loading of damaged goods when clean bill of lading issued.

 

 

There is no right to an indemnity to be implied into a voyage charter in relation to the accuracy of a statement in the draft bill presented to the master that the good are loaded clean on board, in the event that they turn out to be pre-damaged. The Tai Prize  [2020] EWHC 127 (Comm) involved a cargo claim under the bill of lading for which the shipowner received 50% contribution from the disponent owner who then sought to recover that sum from the voyage charterer under a charter which incorporated the Hague Rules.

The shipper presented a draft bill of lading to the shipowner at the loading port which described the cargo, under the heading “Shipper’s description of Goods”,  as being “63,366.150 metric tons Brazilian Soyabeans Clean on Board Freight pre-paid”. The bill of lading that was issued noted that the cargo was loaded in apparent good order and condition. On discharge charred cargo was found in two of the vessel’s holds and discharge was suspended. The remaining cargo was discharged without complaint and the cargo in the affected holds was discharged but the receiver maintained that the cargo in those holds had suffered heat and mould damage. The disponent owner commenced arbitrationto recover from the voyage charterer the contribution paid to the owner. The arbitrator found that the cargo had been loaded in a pre-damaged condition and the shipper as agent for the voyage charterer had impliedly warranted the accuracy of any statement as to condition contained in the bill of lading and had impliedly agreed to indemnify the defendant against the consequences of inaccuracy of the statement

HHJ Pelling QC found that

(1) By presenting the draft bill of lading for signature by or on behalf of the master, in relation to the statement concerning apparent good order and condition, the shipper was doing no more than inviting the master to make a representation of fact in accordance with his own assessment of the apparent condition of the cargo.

(2) The bill of lading was not inaccurate as a matter of law because the master did not and could not reasonably have discovered the relevant defects because they were not reasonably visible to him or any other agent of the claimant at or during shipment.

(3) No guarantee or warranty was to be implied into the voyage charter. It would be wrong in principle to imply into the contract a provision making the claimant liable to indemnify the defendant, when the drafters of the Hague Rules,which were incorporated into the voyage charter,  could have but decided not to provide expressly for such a provision in relation to statements by the shipper as to the apparent order and condition of the cargo. Under Art. III, Rule 5 a warranty is deemed to have been supplied by the shipper to the carrier in respect of the information “… furnished in writing by the shipper” pursuant to HR, Art. III, Rule 3, which relates to the “… leading marks necessary for identification of the goods …” and “… the number of packages or pieces or the quantity or weight …” However,  there is no such guarantee deemed to be given in respect of the apparent order and condition of the goods , This information in the bill is exclusively an assessment by the carrier.

The Judge concluded:

 

[35] The Arbitrator’s concern that the defendant would be left without recourse was misplaced because its liability did not and could not arise as a result of the wrongs of anyone on the charterer’s “… side of the line” because its liability to the Shipowner was the result of its decision to pay the Shipowner rather than defend the claim by reference to the true condition of the goods. There is nothing unfair, unjust, uncommercial or unconscionable about an outcome that leaves ultimate liability with the defendant because there was no misrepresentation, no evidence or finding that the Master had acted on the alleged misrepresentation rather than, or even as well as, attempting to and/or being unable reasonably to verify the condition of the goods before his agents signed the B/L and because it decided to pay the Shipowner.

 

Demurrage due to delays in discharge due to damaged condition of cargo.

Alianca Navegacao E Logistica LTDA v Ameropa SA (The Santa Isabella) [2019] EWHC 3152 (Comm)

A vessel carried a cargo of white corn/maize from Mexico to South African Ports under a Synacomex form charter incorporating the Hague Rules.  On arrival the cargo was found to have suffered extensive damage and that led to a delay in discharge resulting in demurrage becoming due. Voyage charterers claimed that they were not liable for demurrage due to delays resulting from fault of the disponent owners. They alleged that the damage to the Cargo, and the delays at Durban and Richards Bay, were caused by (a) the Vessel taking the Cape Horn route rather than the Panama Canal route from Topolobampo to Durban, (b) failure by the Vessel to ventilate the Cargo in accordance with a sound system, (c) failure by the Vessel to disinfest areas of the Vessel outside of the cargo holds following loading at Topolobampo and/or (d) the Vessel proceeding to Durban at less than her warranted speed.

Andrew Henshaw QC (sitting as a Judge of the High Court) found that the owners’ obligation was to proceed on the usual and reasonable route to the discharge port and that where there were more than one such routes they were entitled to choose one rather than the other and that choice did not require owners to calculate the effect of taking that route on the cargo being carried. Both the Cape Horn route and the Panama Canal routes were usual routes to Durban and the owners committed no deviation, nor breach of art. III(2) of the Hague Rules, in taking the former. In determining which route to take the judge stated[91]:

“cargo considerations may be relevant in the elementary sense that a much longer voyage is likely to be detrimental to a perishable cargo. However, the case law does not in my view require shipowners to undertake the far more refined analysis urged by Ameropa, which would involve (in the present case) considering in detail how predictable climactic conditions on the Cape Horn and Panama Canal routes would impact on the need to ventilate the cargo and the vessel’s ability to do so.

However, the owners were found to have been in breach of art III(2) of the Hague Rules in failing properly to ventilate the cargo on the voyage and this had resulted in the delays experienced at Durban and Richards Bay. It was common ground that as owners were not bailees the legal burden of proof in showing breach of art III(2) fell on charterers. Charterers argued that the arrival of the cargo in a damaged condition  gave rise to an inference of breach. The judge rejected this, stating [52]:

“As a matter of common sense, the arrival in a seriously damaged condition of a cargo loaded in apparent good order and condition calls for an explanation, and a want of care on the part of the shipowner is a possible inference. In the present case, Alianca’s explanation is that the length and/or route of the Voyage made damage inevitable. On that basis, I am inclined to the view that it is for Ameropa to show, on the balance of probabilities, that the damage suffered in fact arose from a breach of contract by Alianca.”

Ameropa succeeded in showing that the damage did arise from a breach of contract by disponent owners.

The owners were also in breach of their obligation to proceed at the warranted speed but it was not possible to identify any particular element of damage or loss caused by that breach.

Anti-suit injunction against owners’ third party proceedings against charterers and sub-charterers in Singapore.

 

The Chang Hang Guang Rong [2019] EWHC 2284 (Comm)  is an interesting, recent anti-suit injunction decision by Andrew Burrows QC, soon to become a Judge of the Supreme Court. Cargo claims arising out of the issue of switch bills were brought against the vessel’s owners in the Singapore High Court. Owners sought to pass these on to Clearlake, the charterer, and to Gunvor the sub charterers, through third party proceedings analogous to CPR Part 20 procedure in England. Both parties obtained anti-suit injunctions (ASI) from the High Court in London on the basis of an exclusive jurisdiction clause in the charter with Clearlake and in the bill of lading issued to Gunvor as shipper, although Gunvor denied being a party thereto.

Owners responded by amending their claims in the Singapore High Court, deleting all their contractual claims against Gunvor and relying on tort claims for misrepresentation, and deleting all their contractual claims against Clearlake, save for claims under a Letter of Indemnity, which contained a non-exclusive London High Court jurisdiction clause. Andrew Burrows QC held that there were two grounds for granting an ASI. First the foreign proceedings constituted a breach of the jurisdiction clause in the contract between the parties. An ASI would be granted unless there were strong reasons not to. Second, the foreign proceedings were otherwise vexatious and oppressive. The court would have to be satisfied that England was clearly the more appropriate forum for trial of the action. The ASI in respect of the proceedings against Clearlake fell within the first category and was maintained. Although the LOI provided for London arbitration for small claims this inconsistency was of no consequence as the claims here were not small.

The injunction was also maintained as regards Owners’ claims against Gunvor, now reframed solely as tort claims, which fell within the second category. The bringing of such claims was vexatious and oppressive, in that it circumvented the normal way of passing claims down a charter chain by leap-frogging Clearlake. Owners had manipulated their third party claims to avoid the exclusive jurisdiction clause in the charter. Clearlake, not Gunvor, dealt directly with the owners and the alleged misrepresentation was directly provided to them by Clearlake. There was a very good reason, so as to avoid forum-fragmentation on the same issues, to have all third party proceedings heard in the same jurisdiction (ie England). There was no obvious prejudice to owners in having all the third party proceedings heard in England rather than Singapore. It was not necessary to decide a further issue of whether Clearlake could restrain the tortious claims against Gunvor

Tort and implied contract in Singapore. The case of the ‘Bum Chin’.

 

In Wilmar Trading Pte Ltd v Heroic Warrior Inc (The “Bum Chin”) [2019] SGHC 143, Singapore High Court, an FOB buyer, Wilmar, nominated the ‘Bum Chin’ for shipping palm oil from Indonesia to Jeddah and Adabiyah.  An incident on the vessel caused physical damage to the vessel and loss of and damage to the cargo. Wilmar arranged for a substitute vessel to transport the palm oil purchased under the sale contracts and claimed damages from the registered owner on the grounds of contract and negligence. The registered owner counter claimed asserting that Wilmar was responsible for the damage sustained by the vessel because the loading terminal, as Wilmar’s agent, had improperly loaded the cargo.

Was there a contract between the parties? Wilmar relied on Pyrene v Scindia [1954] 1 Lloyd’s Rep 321, where there was found to be a  contract of carriage between the shipowner and the cargo interest. But Belinda Ang Saw Ean J found that here there was no such contract as the bills to be issued would have been charterers’ bills and the defendant was not the contractual carrier. Turning to tort, although Wilmar had no proprietary interest to found a cause of action in negligence since NTUC Foodfare Co-operative Ltd v SIA Engineering Co Ltd [2018] 2 SLR 588, pure economic loss was claimable under Singapore law and the question was whether the defendant owed a duty of care. The judge found that this was the case. The shipowner as performing carrier would have reasonably foreseen that its negligence would cause economic loss to a buyer of cargo who bore the risk of damage to or loss of the cargo. The requirement of legal proximity was also satisfied. The countervailing policy consideration of indeterminacy did not arise because the plaintiff as FOB buyer bore the risk of loss or damage to the cargo. In the absence of a contract of carriage, the defendant owed the plaintiff a duty to take reasonable care of the cargo loaded on board.

The counterclaim was dismissed on the basis that, absent a contract of carriage between the parties, Wilmar, who was not responsible for the actions in loading of the FOB seller in agency or otherwise, owed no duty of care to the defendant. On the evidence Wilmar’s loss was caused by the shipowner’s negligence as structural weaknesses were a cause of the failure of the tank which had caused leakage and contamination of the cargo.

Hague-Visby Time Bar. Timeous claims by non-parties.

 

How does the Hague-Visby time limit operate when suit is commenced within the one year period, but by the wrong party? Can they amend the statement of claim to add or substitute the correct party? A resounding ‘no’ is the answer recently given in Feyha Maritime Ltd v Miloubar Central Feedmill Ltd and Another – Civil Leave to Appeal 7195/18, Supreme Court of Israel (Hendel J) – 12 May 2019.

MCF alleged that it imported a cargo of corn to Israel from the Ukraine on the defendant’s ship. The Phoenix Insurance Co Ltd (Phoenix) insured the cargo. A fire broke out on the ship on 13 May 2015 and the cargo never reached its destination. On 4 February 2016 MCF filed a claim against Phoenix in the Magistrates’ Court  and on 5 April 2016 MCF amended its statement of claim to add the shipowners as an additional defendant. That same day Phoenix filed a claim against the shipowners in the District Court of Haifa which claim was subsequently settled. MCF continued to pursue its claim against the shipowners on the basis that it had not received a full indemnity from Phoenix in respect of the damage to the cargo. The shipowners filed a motion to dismiss MCF’s claim on the basis that the bill of lading identified the consignee as “Miloubar Cooperative Agricultural Society Ltd” (MCAS) and not MCF.

The Magistrates’ Court agreed that MCF had no cause of action against the shipowners. MCF argued that it was possible to amend the statement of claim to add or substitute MCAS as plaintiff. The Magistrates’ Court agreed and rejected the shipowners’ motion to dismiss MCF’s claim in limine. Adding MCAS as a plaintiff constituted an amendment that was merely technical and formal. The shipowners filed a motion for leave to appeal to the District Court who rejected the motion for different reasons. The shipowners appealed, arguing the Hague-Visby Rules time bar was a substantive limitation that rescinded the right of claim itself.

The Supreme Court agreed. To allow amendment of the statement of claim without affecting the limitation period of the claim, the original statement of claim had to demonstrate a cause of action against the defendant, but here MCF’s original statement of claim revealed no cause of action against the defendant. The term “suit” in article III rule 6 related to the existence of a proper claim between appropriate parties. The claim filed by Phoenix against the shipowner could not stop accrual of the limitation period with respect to a claim of the owner of the insured cargo against the carrier.

Parallel claims filed in different forums were capable of stopping accrual of the limitation period (see The Nordglimt), but those cases mostly focused on the question whether a claim filed by a party entitled to do so in a foreign forum with jurisdiction to hear the claim could stop accrual of the limitation period for another claim between the same parties (or between parties with relevant nexus) filed in a different forum. It was not appropriate to conclude from judicial precedents permitting claims filed in another forum to stop accrual of limitations, that a claim filed by another plaintiff could also be permitted to do so. The identity of the parties was an integral part of the term “cause” of the story being heard, for purpose of statutes of limitation, and a rule allowing the identity of the plaintiffs to be changed without such having any implications on the limitation period undermined certainty in the rules of limitation and the principle of claim preclusion.

Leave to appeal was granted, and the appeal accepted, meaning that the claim would be dismissed in limine for having reached its limitation period.