Limitation — life gets simpler

Last week – some, one suspects, will ruefully have noted that it was Friday 13 – P&I clubs got some unwelcome news. An old limitation conundrum arising under the Hague-Visby Rules which they had previously assumed fell to be answered in their favour was dealt with by Sir Nigel Teare, who ruled firmly and decisively against them.

The issue concerned the interpretation of the last few words of Hague-Visby Art.IV, Rule 5(a): “neither the carrier nor the ship shall in any event be or become liable for any loss or damage to or in connection with the goods in an amount exceeding 666.67 units of account per package or unit or 2 units of account per kilogramme of gross weight of the goods lost or damaged, whichever is the higher.” Now, did “the goods lost or damaged” mean “those goods irretrievably lost or physically affected”, or “any goods in respect of which a claim arose”?

The point matters because a breach of contract by the carrier will not necessarily damage the goods or cause them to disappear forever in Davy Jones’s locker: it may leave them in impeccable physical condition and entirely accessible, but nevertheless have the effect of depreciating them in the hands of the shipper or consignee. This was exactly what happened in Trafigura v TKK Shipping [2023] EWHC 26 (Comm). A vessel grounded owing to a breach by the carrier of its obligations while carrying a cargo of zinc calcine (since you asked, an impure form of zinc oxide with uses in the ceramic industry). She had to be expensively rescued, refloated and unloaded. Less than ten percent of the cargo was actually lost or even damaged: but in order to get any of the rest the owner had to sub up several million dollars for salvage, onshipment and various odds and sods.

In the ensuing claim, the question of limitation arose. The carriers sought to limit on the basis of SDR 2,000 per tonne of the fairly small amount of cargo lost or damaged. The cargo owners argued that the limitation figure should encompass the whole cargo, since its losses embraced even the undamaged portion, a position that would enable them to recover all their loss rather than a smallish percentage of it.

Sir Nigel Teare gave a very careful judgment dissecting all the authorities and also giving an informative account of the diplomatic argy-bargy making up the travaux préparatoires behind the 1968 Visby amendments. At the end of the day, however, he had no doubt that the cargo owners were right. The limitation figure applied to all the cargo in respect of which a claim was brought, whether or not it had suffered physical lesion. The Limnos [2008] 2 Lloyd’s Rep. 166, a decision on admittedly slightly different facts (it concerned depreciation of a whole cargo consequential on damage to part of it) that for some fifteen years had been taken to settle the position in favour of the P&I clubs’ position, he politely declined to follow.

It seems not unlikely that this will go on appeal. It’s certainly worth a punt, since there is something like $7 million at stake. For what it is worth, however, we think the decision is right. There seems no good reason to have what is in effect two different two different package limitation regimes according to whether we are talking physical or economic loss. Whether cargo is physically damaged in a casualty or not can be pretty arbitrary. Suppose, for instance, delay due to unseaworthiness depreciates one owner’s cargo of meat but slightly taints another’s. It seems odd that the first owner recovers in full but the second faces a limitation defence. Again, had the defendants been right in the Trafigura case, then as pointed out by both Sir Nigel and our own Professor Baughen (see [2008] LCMLQ 439) there would be a perverse incentive in cargo owners not to try to mitigate damage where it does occur, since the more cargo he can show to have been physically damaged the higher the limitation figure will be.

In short, however much law professors might enjoy arguing over what amounts to physical damage, and what counts as economic damage or consequential losses, this case is welcome in sparing insurers and P&I clubs the trouble of doing so. It simplifies the settlement of cargo claims, avoiding hair-splitting dissensions; for that reason alone we should welcome it.

What’s coming in 2023?

Nearly two weeks into the New Year and the IISTL’s version of ‘Old Moore’s Almanack’ looks ahead to what 2023 is going to have in store us.

Brexit. EU Retained EU Law (Revocation and Reform) Bill will kick in at end of the year. It will be a major surprise if the two Conflicts Regulations, Rome I and Rome 2 aren’t retained, but not the Port Services Regulation.

Ebury Partners Belgium SA/NV v Technical Touch BV, Jan Berthels [2022] EWHC 2927 (Comm) is another recent decision in which an ASI has been granted to restrain proceedings in an EU Member State (Belgium) in respect of a contract subject to English jurisdiction.

Electronic bills of lading. Electronic Trade Documents Bill. Likely to become law in 2023 and to come into effect two months after getting Royal Assent. The Law Commission will publish a consultation paper “Digital assets: which law, which court?” dealing with conflicts of law issues in the second half of 2023.

Autonomous vessels. The Department for Transport consultation on MASS and possible amendments to the Merchant Shipping Act 1995 closed in November 2021. Maybe some results in 2023?

Supreme Court cases

Okpabi v Royal Dutch Shell. The case may well go to trial in 2023, although in May 2022 the High Court EWHC 989 (TCC), held it was premature to grant a  Group Litigation Order and directed that each individual claimant should specify additional details to formulate a proper cause of action for the defendants to respond to.

In similar proceedings in the Netherlands in which the Court of Appeal in the Hague gave judgment in January 2021 relating to multiple oil pipeline leaks in the Niger Delta, it was announced just before Christmas 2022 that Shell will pay 15 million euros ($15.9 million) to the affected communities in Nigeria in full and final settlement on a basis of no admission of liability.

The Eternal Bliss appeal to the Supreme Court is likely to be heard in 2023, with possibility of judgment given in 2023.

But there must be a question mark over London Steam-ship Owners’ Mutual Insurance Association Ltd (Respondent) v Kingdom of Spain (Appellant), Case ID: Case ID 2022/0062 where it is stated “This appeal has been adjourned by request of the parties.”

Climate Change

IMO  Two measures aimed at reducing shipping’s contribution to GHG emissions,   EEXI and Cii, both came into force as from 1 January 2023 and will be in the forefront of the minds of those negotiating new time charters.

EU. Shipping is likely to come into the ETS system with the amendments to the 2003 ETS Directive with phasing in from 1 January 2024. Here and here.

BIMCO has produced time charter clauses to deal with all three of these measures.

Ewan McGaughey et al v. Universities Superannuation Scheme Limited is a case involving whether the investments in fossil fuels by a large pension fund in the UK breach the directors’ fiduciary duties and duties towards contributors of the pension fund. On 24 May 2022, the High Court refused permission to bring a derivative action against USSL, but the Court of Appeal gave permission to appeal in October 2022, so a hearing in 2023 is “on the cards”.

European Union

On 15 July 2022, the EU Taxonomy Complementary Climate Delegated Act covering certain nuclear and gas activities came into force on 4 August 2022 and has applied from 1 January 2023. A legal challenge against the Commission before the CJEU by various NGOs and two member states, Austria and/or Luxembourg has been threatened in connection for the inclusion of nuclear energy and natural gas in the Delegated Act. Climate mitigation and adaptation criteria for maritime shipping, were included in the EU Taxonomy Climate Delegated Act adopted in April 2021.

Previous requests from other NGOs asking the Commission to carry out an internal review of the inclusion of certain forestry and bioenergy activities in the EU green taxonomy had already been rejected by the Commission in 2022.

The Corporate sustainability reporting directive came into effect on 16 Dec, 2022

For EU companies already required to prepare a non-financial information statement, the CSRD is effective for periods commencing on or after 1 January 2024. Large UK and other non-EU companies listed on an EU regulated market (i.e. those meeting two of the three following criteria: more than €20 million total assets, more than €40 million net turnover and more than 250 employees) will be subject to the CSRD requirements for periods commencing on or after 1 January 2025. 

UK and other non-EU companies that are not listed in the EU but which have substantial activity in the EU will be subject to the CSRD for periods commencing on or after 1 January 2028.

Finally, a very happy 2023 to all our readers.

What is the contract of carriage of goods by sea? Booking note or sea waybill?

Poralu Marine Australia Pty Ltd v MV Dijksgracht – [2022] FCA 1038 is an interesting case from the Federal Court of Australia on identifying what constitutes the contract of carriage of goods by sea,and what terms are applicable to that contract. It will not necessarily be the transport document that is issued on loading, in this case a sea waybill.

Between 6 and 11 December 2019, 23 pontoons and 11 pallets were loaded on board the motor vessel Dijksgracht at the port of Cork, Ireland, as breakbulk cargo. The cargo  of 23 pontoons and 11 pallets was loaded at Cork on The Dijksgracht and was consigned to Poralu Marine Australia Pty Ltd, for installation at the Royal Geelong Yacht Club. The cargo was discharged on or about 13 February 2020 at Geelong and it was alleged that three pontoons were discharged damaged having been loaded in sound condition. Poralu brought actions in bailment and negligence against the shipowner, RT, in rem and against ST as carrier, in personam

The carriage agreement began with a series of emails between Poralu and ST, between 7 and 9 November 2019, culminating in an unsigned booking note issued by ST which Poralu accepted on 20 November 2019.  The booking note, which provided that it was to “prevail over any previous arrangements”, was accepted by Poralu on 20 November 2019. After loading ST issued a sea waybill was issued acknowledging receipt of the cargo in good order and condition. The sea waybill contained a “Himalaya Clause” under which RD as owner was entitled to the benefit of:

Poralu alleged that the cargo was loaded on board the vessel in sound condition and that three pontoons were found to have been damaged when the cargo was discharged. Poralu commenced two actions for damages arising from the alleged damage to the cargo, both in bailment and the tort of negligence. The first action was in rem against the vessel and its owner, said to be Dijksgracht CV (DCV), a Netherlands company. The second was an action in personam against Spliethoff Transport (ST) as carrier and Rederij Dijksgracht (RD), said to be the shipowner.

An issue arose as to the applicable limitation figure in respect of the three damaged pontoons. Poralu asserted that the contract of carriage was concluded in the recap in the emails, so that there was a binding arrangement in advance of the acceptance of the booking note. On that basis the contract was subject to and incorporated the Australian Hague Rules and that it was a term of the contract of carriage that a bill of lading would be issued to Poralu in respect of the cargo either immediately or on request. Under the Australian Hague Rules the limitation figure would be that in the 1979 SDR Protocol to the Hague-Visby Rules.

The two defendants denied negligence and claimed that the contract of carriage was subject to the terms and conditions of ST’s booking note which applied the law of the Netherlands and incorporated the terms of Articles I-VIII of the Hague Rules 1924 and therefore excluded the operation of the Australian Hague Rules under  the Carriage of Goods by Sea Amendment Act 1997 (Cth) and the Carriage of Goods by Sea Regulations 1998 (Cth). The booking note stated specifically that liability was limited to £100 lawful money of the UK per package or unit. ST and RD argued that the Hague Rules had been incorporated and that such incorporation excluded the application of the Australian Hague Rules.

 Stewart J held that the liability of ST was limited to £100 UK money per package, and that applied to the claims in bailment and negligence. The court’s starting point was that the Australian conflict of laws rule for determining the question whether a contract was concluded is the law of the forum (in contrast to the English conflict rule which applies the law of the putative contract). A binding contract had not been concluded at the end of the initial email exchanges but came into being with the acceptance of ST’s booking note which contained all of the terms previously agreed in the recap and filled in the gaps, so that it constituted an offer capable of acceptance, and it was immaterial that it was unsigned. The booking note anticipated the issue of a bill of lading or a sea waybill, and provided that the booking note would prevail over the terms of such a document. The sea waybill that was issued made no change in the contractual relationship. The sea waybill was not a contractual document at all but a receipt only, as was the case with the bill of lading received by the fob charterer in The Dunelmia. The overriding clause in the booking note meant that the terms of the booking note prevailed over the sea waybill. Further, the booking note, which had been found by the court to be a contractual document, preceded the shipment of the cargo, whereas the sea waybill was only agreed and issued long after the cargo had been shipped

Applying Dutch law, to which the booking note was subject, the Hague-Visby Rules were not applicable. The Dutch law experts disagreed regarding the application of the Hague-Visby Rules where the carrier and the shipowner did not agree, when concluding the contract, whether or not a bill of lading or sea waybill will eventually be issued. They disagreed about whether the mere existence of the unexercised right of the shipper to demand a bill of lading (pursuant to Art 3(3) of the Rules or Art 8:399 of the DCC) was sufficient for the material application of the Rules or whether the shipper had actually to exercise its right to demand a bill of lading. The experts agreed that that question was undecided by the Dutch courts. However, assuming that the shipper’s right to demand a bill triggered the issue of the Hague-Visby Rules, the Hague-Visby Rules could not operate on the facts of this case. Ireland was not a contracting state so such a possible bill of lading would not have been issued in a contracting state nor would there be carriage was from a contracting state. As regards Article X(c) whereby the Rules apply to a bill of lading relating to the carriage of goods between ports in two different states if “the contract contained in or evidenced by the bill of lading provides that the rules of this Convention or legislation of any State giving effect to them are to govern the contract” Poralu relied on the standard bill of lading terms that ST would have used had a bill of lading been issued. That would have contained the following clause paramount:

1    Except in case of US Trade, the Hague Rules contained in the International Convention for the Unification of certain rules relating to Bills of Lading, dated Brussels, 25th August 1924, as enacted in the country of shipment, shall apply to this Bill of Lading.

2    If no such enactment is in force in the country of shipment, the articles I-VIII inclusive of the said Convention shall apply.

3    In trades where the International Brussels Convention 1924 as amended by the Protocols signed at Brussels on 23 February 1968 and 21 December 1979 (the Hague-Visby Rules) apply compulsorily, the provisions of the Hague-Visby Rules shall be considered incorporated in this Bill of Lading.

….

5    If the Hague Rules are applicable otherwise than by national law, in determining the liability of the Carrier, the liability shall in no event exceed £100 (GBP) sterling lawful money of the United Kingdom per package or unit.

Since the Hague Rules were not enacted in Ireland, the first sentence of the paramount clause had no application, and the second sentence applied. Since the paramount clause in the present case here referred separately and deliberately to the Hague Rules and the Hague-Visby Rules, the conclusion in The Superior Pescadores was inapplicable

Neither did the Hague-Visby Rules apply by virtue of the Australian legislation under which the booking note would be regarded as a charterparty (in this case a “space” or “slot” charter) over which the Rules would apply only where a sea carriage document was issued for the carriage. The booking note here was a charterparty, but the sea waybill was not a sea carriage document in that it was a mere receipt and was not negotiable. Accordingly the parties’ agreement on limitation remained applicable. Stewart J rejected Poralu’s argument that as they had a contractual right to demand a bill of lading then the contract of carriage was a contract covered by, relevantly, “a sea carriage document”. It was doubtful whether a contract of carriage is “covered by” a sea carriage document when the document in question, whether actually issued or merely the subject of a right of demand to be issued, did not or would not contain or evidence the contract.

Finally, RD were entitled to rely on the £100 package limitation in the booking note by virtue of its Himalaya clause. The clause satisfied all four of Lord Reid’s conditions set out in Midland Silicones v Scruttons  and Stewart J rejected Poralu’s argument that the clause did not satisfy the third element, in that the carrier had not had authority from the third party to contract as agent. The evidence showed that RD and ST were parties to a pooling agreement under which ST had to use all reasonable endeavours to protect and promote the interests of pool members. The pooling agreement conferred the necessary authority.

Closing the gap.  Hague Rules time bars and misdelivery claims.

In The Alhani [2018] 2 Lloyd’s Rep 563 the Hague Rules one year time limit was held to apply to a misdelivery claim, where delivery was made on discharge within the ‘tackle to tackle period’. This left an open question as to whether the one year time limit would apply when delivery was made after discharge from the vessel. This question has now been answered by Sir William Blair (Sitting as a High Court Judge) in FIMBank PLC v KCH Shipping Co., Ltd [2022] EWHC 2400 (Comm). The case arose out of a misdelivery after discharge under a bill of lading on Congenbill form. The Tribunal, comprising three leading maritime arbitrators,  Julia Dias QC, Sir Bernard Eder and Timothy Young QC, found that: (i) the Hague-Visby Rules time bar can in principle apply to claims relating to misdelivery occurring after discharge; and (ii) Clause 2(c) of the Congenbill form did not disapply the Hague-Visby Rules time bar to the period after discharge. On a s.69 appeal, two questions were posed.

i) Whether Art.III, r.6 of the Hague-Visby Rules applies to claims for misdelivery of cargo after discharge (the “first question”);

ii) Whether clause 2(c) of the Congenbill form disapplies the Hague-Visby Rules to the period after discharge (the “second question”).

The clause reads. “The Carrier shall in no case be responsible for loss and damage to the cargo, howsoever arising prior to loading into and after discharge from the Vessel of [which must mean “or”] while the cargo is the charge of another Carrier, nor in respect of deck cargo or live animals.”

Sir William Blair upheld the finding of the tribunal, giving a positive answer to the first question, and a negative answer to the second.

On the question of the applicability of the timebar to claims for misdelivery of cargo after discharge, he found the tribunal had correctly decided that on its true construction Art.III, r.6 of the Hague-Visby Rules, which includes the time bar but is concerned with delivery in a broader context, applies to claims for misdelivery of cargo after discharge.  This conclusion avoids the necessity for fine distinctions as to the point at which discharge ends. It is also consistent with the authoritative statement of the objective of the article by Bingham LJ in The Captain Gregos ([1990] 1 Lloyd’s Rep. 310 at p.315 (col 2)) that it is, “like any time bar, intended to achieve finality and, in this case, enable the ship owner to clear his books”. In addition there no consensus to be shown among the courts of other jurisdictions, nor in the commentary.

Additionally, the application of the time limit to a misdelivery after discharge could be supported by the implication of a term as argued by Carver on Bills of Lading, Sir Guenter Treitel and Professor Francis Reynolds, 4th ed (2017) at [9-130] which states that the Rules may appear on their face to cease operation on discharge, but that consignees will normally collect them after some period of storage. The carriage contract arguably continues, and that under English law the carrier still holds the goods under the contract of carriage and under the Rules, unless it alters its responsibility for this stage by a term in the contract of carriage.

On the second question, the effect of cl.2(c) of the CONGENBILL, Sir William Blair upheld the tribunal’s conclusion that the clause did not disapply the Hague-Visby Rules to the period after discharge. The clause made no reference to any Hague-Visby Rules period. By contrast, the clause in The MSC Amsterdam [2007] EWCA Civ 794, [2007] 2 Lloyd’s Rep 622 was materially different in that its reference to loss “after the end of the Hague Rules period” showed that there was to be a period when the Hague Rules did not apply but would be be a time when the Owners may still have the obligations of a bailee in respect of the goods, and can agree that the terms of that bailment are not to be those of the Hague Rules.

Coming soon? Legal Equivalence for Electronic Trade Documents in England and Wales. 

Spain got one in 2014[1], Singapore in 2020[2], and now it seems England and Wales are going to get one in the next year  – a law on the functional legal equivalence of electronic bills of lading, and other trade documents, to their paper counterparts.

On 16 March 2022 the Law Commission of England and Wales issued its report on Electronic Trade Documents, LC 405, which proposed a draft, six clause, bill, the Electronic Trade Documents bill creating functional equivalence for electronic trade documents with their paper equivalents.  In May 2022 the government included the Electronic Trade Documents Bill in the Queen’s Speech in May 2022 setting out its legislative programme for 2022-23 session of Parliament and there is a good prospect of it becoming law in the next year.

The bill operates as follows.

Clause 1 defines the relevant paper documents as “…any paper document used in trade to which possession is relevant (as a matter of law or commercial practice) for a person to claim performance of an obligation, regardless of its precise legal nature.” The bill then lists examples of specific paper documents, including the bill of lading, that would constitute paper trade documents.  

Amenability to exclusive control is a necessary criterion for an electronic equivalent to these paper trade document so as to qualify as an electronic trade document and the transfer of an electronic trade document must necessarily entail a transfer both of the document and of the ability to control the document. This is set out in the next clause.

Clause 2 provides that Electronic equivalents of those documents would be ‘qualifying electronic documents’ and would become “electronic trade documents” if

“ a reliable system is used to—

(a) identify the document so that it can be distinguished from any copies,

(b) protect the document against unauthorised alteration,

 (c) secure that it is not possible for more than one person to exercise control of the document at any one time,

(d) allow any person who is able to exercise control of the document to demonstrate that the person is able to do so, and

(e) secure that a transfer of the document has effect to deprive any person who was able to exercise control of the document immediately before the transfer of the ability to do so (except to the extent that the person is able to exercise control by virtue of being a transferee).”

Clause 3 provides for full legal equivalence between electronic trade documents and paper trade documents, as follows:

(1) A person may possess, indorse and part with possession of an electronic trade document.

(2) An electronic trade document has the same effect as the equivalent paper trade document.

(3) Anything done in relation to an electronic trade document that corresponds to anything that could be done in relation to the equivalent paper trade document has the same effect in relation to the electronic trade document as it would have in relation to the paper trade document.

Legal equivalence will mean that the electronic bill of lading can operate as a document of title, and will constitute a bill of lading for the purposes of COGSA 1992 and COGSA 1971.

Clause 4 provides for change of form from paper document to electronic document, and vice versa.

Clause 5 provides for a list of excluded documents, currently (a) a bearer bond; (b) an uncertificated unit of a security that is transferable by means of a relevant system in accordance with the Uncertificated Securities Regulations 2001 (S.I. 2001/3755). The Secretary of State is empowered to add to, remove, or amend the list by statutory instrument.

Clause 6 provides for consequential amendments with the repeal of Sections 1(5) and 1(6) of COGSA 1992 and the insertion of “or to a bill or note that is an electronic trade document for the purposes of the Electronic Trade Documents Act 2022 (see section 2 of that Act)” at the end of section 89B(2) of the Bills of Exchange Act 1882 (instruments to which section 89A applies).

The Act extends to England and Wales only, comes into force at the end of the period of two months beginning with the day on which it is passed and does not apply to a document issued before the day on which the Act comes into force.

The bill is likely to prove uncontroversial, but will come up against 57 other legislative items fighting for space in the 22-23 session of Parliament. One hopes it makes it through.


[1] Under arts 262-266 of the Maritime Navigation Act 14/2014

[2] Under the Electronic Transactions (Amendment) Act setting out a legislative framework for Electronic Transferable Records (ETRs) based on the Model Law on Electronic Transferable Records (MLETR).]

A classic problem returns – bills of lading, charterparties and the terms of the contract of carriage

As any shipping lawyer will tell you, the law is not at its tidiest when a bill of lading ends up in the hands of a voyage charterer. Yesterday’s decision in Unicredit AG v Euronav NV [2022] EWHC 957 (Comm) adds a further chapter to the saga, which may be more tendentious than it looks.

The case arose out of the insolvency and suspected fraud of Indian oil trader GP (Gulf Petrochem FZC, now a restructured GP Global, not to be confused with oil major Gulf Oil). BP chartered the 150,000-ton Suezmax Sienna from her owners Euronav and agreed to sell her cargo to GP. GP financed the deal through Unicredit, under an arrangement whereby Gulf agreed to pledge and assign to Unicredit all rights in cargoes and rights arising under bills of lading, and agreed that it would resell the cargo to buyers who would pay Unicredit direct.

A bill of lading was issued by Euronav to BP. On the sale, Unicredit paid BP on GP’s behalf; but instead of the bill of lading being endorsed to GP, the charter itself was novated, BP dropping out and being supplanted by GP. BP retained the bill of lading, still made out in its favour.

In April 2020, GP sweet-talked Unicredit into condoning a series of STS transfers of the cargo to what seem to have been connected entities, despite the fact that the bill of lading was still in the hands of BP. The sub-buyers never paid Unicredit; at the same time GP showed worrying signs of financial strain. Unicredit now realised that something had gone badly wrong with the deal, with their security and with GP as a whole. It swiftly got BP to endorse the bill of lading to it and tried to salvage the situation by suing Euronav for delivering the cargo without its production.

The claim was unsuccessful. And rightly so. On the evidence it was clear that Unicredit had actually condoned the STS transfers in the knowledge that the bill of lading would not available, and therefore had only itself to blame. With this we have no argument.

But the claim also failed for another reason, which we are less sure about: namely, that the bill of lading in fact never governed the liabilities of Euronav in any case. The reason was this. When the bill was issued to BP, it was uncontroversial that it did not form the contract between the parties, since there was also a charter in force between BP and Euronav, and as between the two the charter prevailed (see Rodocanachi v Milburn (1887) 18 Q.B.D. 67). True, at the time of the STS transfers there was no longer a charter between BP and Euronav because GP had been substituted for BP. But this (it was said) made no difference. Although the bill of lading would have been the governing document had BP endorsed it to GP (Leduc v Ward (1888) 20 Q.B.D. 475), this did not apply where there had been no such transfer. In the present case there was no reason to infer that at that time the document’s status in BP’s hands had been intended to change from that of mere receipt to full contractual document; it therefore remained in the former category.

With respect, it is not entirely clear why this should be the case. For one thing, if a carrier issues a bill of lading to a charterer, arguably the reason why the bill of lading does not form the contract between the parties is simply that one has to choose between two inconsistent contracts, and that the obvious choice is the charter. If so, once the charter drops away as between those parties, there is no reason not to go back to the bill of lading. This seems, if one may say so, rather more convincing than the idea that the carrier is implicitly agreeing that the bill of lading gains contractual force if, and only if, endorsed by the charterer to someone else so as to cause a new contract to spring up. (In this connection it is worth remembering that it is equally possible for a bill of lading that once did have contractual force to cease to have it as a result of transfer to a charterer – see for instance The Dunelmia [1970] 1 Q.B. 289 – despite the fact that in such a case there can be no question of any new contract springing up.)

Put another way, it seems odd that entirely different results should follow according to whether a charterer transfers the bill of lading and retains the charter, or transfers the charter and retains the bill of lading.

There is also a practical point. Suppose that in the Unicredit case the unpaid party had not been Unicredit, but BP. BP might have thought that they were safe in allowing the charter to be novated in favour of GP provided they kept hold of the bill of lading and with it the assurance that the cargo could not reach GP’s hands without their consent. One suspects they would have been somewhat surprised to be told in such a case that the bill of lading was, and remained, of no effect despite the fact that they were no longer charterers of the vessel.

There clearly won’t be an appeal in this case, given the consent of Unicredit to what would otherwise have been a misdelivery. But the bill of lading point will no doubt give academics and others plenty to speculate about in the next editions of Scrutton, Aikens and other works. We await the results with interest.

IISTL Professor’s UNCTAD Report on “Legal and Practical Implications of Covid-19” Is Out

“CONTRACTS FOR  THE CARRIAGE OF GOODS BY SEA AND MULTIMODAL  TRANSPORT KEY ISSUES ARISING FROM THE IMPACTS  OF THE COVID-19 PANDEMICA” is now available at https://www.google.com/url?q=https%3A%2F%2Functad.org%2Fsystem%2Ffiles%2Fofficial-document%2Fdtltlbinf2022d1_en.pdf&sa=D&sntz=1&usg=AFQjCNGYpOUVQNY4G-u7Vkox_kWvDs8Nkw

This is a report for the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development and was  prepared by  Professor  Simon  Baughen,  with contributions  by  Regina Asariotis  and  Anila  Premti,  Policy  and Legislation  Section,  Trade  Logistics  Branch,  Division  on  Technology  and  Logistics  of  UNCTAD. The report forms  part  of  the  ‘International commercial transport  and  trade  law’  component of the  UN Development Account project (UNDA  2023X)  project on “Transport and trade  connectivity  in the  age  of pandemics”.  

This report examines some  of  the  key legal issues  arising from  the  pandemic  as  they  affect  contracts  for the  carriage  of  goods  by  sea, multimodal  contracts  of  carriage  that  (may)  involve  carriage  by  sea,  as well as voyage  and time  charters. 

Incorporation of charter terms into bills of lading. Is shipowner’s right to a general average contribution from cargo interests excluded?

The Polar ( [2021] EWCA Civ 1828) involved a claim by owners to recover cargo’s proportion of general average in relation to a payment to pirates who had detained the vessel in the Gulf of Aden. The cargo owners defended the claim on the ground that the shipowner’s only remedy in the event of having to pay a ransom to pirates was to recover under the terms of insurance policies, the premium for which had been paid by the voyage charterer.

The charter was on BPVOY 4 standard form, cl.39 of which provided a war risks clause which covered “acts of piracy”. There was also a Gulf of Aden clause which provided:

“Any additional insurance premia (including, but not limited to, those in respect of H&M, crew, P&I kidnap risks and ransoms), crew bonuses (which to be in accordance with the international standard) shall be for chrtrs account. Max USD 40,000 for charterer’s account for any additional insurance premium except for crew bonus which to be max USD 20,000 for charterers account.”

Six bills of lading were issued all of which incorporated the terms of the charterparty and five provided for general average to be settled under the York-Antwerp Rules 1974, with one providing for general average to be settled under the 1994 Rules. The insurance premium was just short of the $40,000 figure in the Gulf of Aden clause and the premiums were paid by the shipowner who was then reimbursed by the charterer.

The arbitrators on a determination of two preliminary issues found that: (1) the terms of the voyage charter, including in particular the war risks and Gulf of Aden clauses, were incorporated into the bills of lading; (2) the shipowner, on the true construction of the bills of lading and/or by implication, agree to look solely to its insurance cover under the war risks and/or K&R insurance in the event of a loss covered by that insurance.

On appeal Teare J held that the incorporating words in the bills of lading were wide enough to incorporate the war risks and Gulf of Aden clauses. However, the bills of lading holders were not liable for additional premium as it was not appropriate to substitute the “bills of lading holders” for “charterers” so as to impose a liability on them to pay the premium. As between the shipowner and charterers the parties had agreed that the shipowner would look to the insurers for indemnification in respect of losses under the Gulf of Aden clause and not to the charterer so that they were precluded from seeking a contribution from the charterer in respect of general average. However, the incorporated provisions of the charterparty did not have this effect as regards the bill of lading holders, who had not agreed to pay the premium.

The Court of Appeal has now upheld the decision. Males LJ, giving the judgment of the Court, noted that this was a weaker case than either The Evia (no 2) or the Ocean Victory for concluding that the shipowner had agreed not to claim a contribution in general average from the charterer. However, the question did not need to be decided, and the case could  proceed on the basis that there was an implicit agreement to this effect as between owners and charterers. As regard the bills of ladings, it was doubtful that the very wide words of incorporation were wide enough to encompass what was merely implicit in the express terms considered as a whole. To find in the bills of lading an agreement by the shipowner not to seek a general average contribution from the cargo owners, that must be because the express terms of the charterparty which are incorporated into the bills demonstrate that the same (or an equivalent) agreement was intended to apply also under the bills of lading.

Part of the additional war risks and Gulf of Aden clauses were prima facie incorporated into the bills of lading contracts, but the next issue was whether the requirement on the charterer to pay the premium should be “manipulated” so as to impose that obligation on the bill of lading holders. Males LJ found that is was not appropriated to engage in such manipulation. There was nothing in either the bills or the charter to say how liability for the premium would be apportioned between different bill of lading holders. The fact that neither the bills nor the charterparty addressed this question suggested that the bill of lading holders were not intended to be liable for the premium. However, the incorporation of these terms did serve a useful purpose as the basis on which the shipowner has agreed in the bill of lading contract that the voyage will be via Suez and the Gulf of Aden, without which there would be uncertainty as to the vessel’s route.

Cargo argued that the premium paid by the charterer could be regarded as paid for the benefit of the bill of lading holders on the basis that its counterparty would not seek contribution from them as the party for whose benefit the premium is paid in the event of an insured loss. Males LJ rejected the argument as the risks of piracy and the potential need to pay a ransom were foreseen by the parties to the bill of lading contract and dealt with expressly by them. There were no clear express words to rebut the presumption that the shipowner did not intend to abandon its right to a contribution from the cargo owners in general average. Any “implicit understanding” was not so clear as to show that this was what the parties intended, particularly as the charterer was not necessarily paying the whole of the additional premium which would be necessary to obtain the cover required.

 In this case both parties were insured against the risk of piracy and allowing the shipowner to claim would mean that each set of insurers would bear its proper share of the risk which it has agreed to cover. In contrast, if the bills of lading were construed so as to exclude a claim by the shipowner, the loss would be borne entirely by the shipowner’s insurers and  the cargo owners’ insurers would escape liability for a risk which they agreed to cover.

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.