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.

Sanctions, force majeure. No obligation to accept payment in alternative currency.

MUR Shipping BV v RTI Ltd [2022] EWHC 467 (Comm) raises the question of whether the effect of financial sanctions obliges a contractual party to accept payment in a currency other than that specified in the contract. Mur Shipping BV (“the Owners” or “MUR”) concluded a Contract of Affreightment (“COA”) with RTI Ltd (“the Charterers” or “RTI”) in June 2016. Under the COA, the Charterers contracted to ship, and the Owners contracted to carry, approximately 280,000 metric tons per month of bauxite, in consignments of 30,000 – 40,000 metric tons, from Conakry in Guinea to Dneprobugsky in Ukraine. On 6 April 2018, the US Department of the Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (“OFAC”) applied sanctions (“the sanctions”) to RTI’s parent company, adding them to the Specially Designated Nationals and Blocked Persons List. This led to the Owners invoking a force majeure clause in the COA by sending a force majeure notice (“FM Notice”) on 10 April 2018 in which the Owners said that it would be a breach of sanctions for the Owners to continue with the performance of the COA and noted that the “sanctions will prevent dollar payments, which are required under the COA”.

The force majeure clause provided for the suspension of the obligation of each party to perform the Charter Party while such Force Majeure Event is in operation.  The clause provided that

“36.3. A Force Majeure Event is an event or state of affairs which meets all of the following criteria:

a) It is outside the immediate control of the Party giving the Force Majeure Notice;

b) It prevents or delays the loading of the cargo at the loading port and/or the discharge of the cargo at the discharging port;

c) It is caused by one or more of acts of God, extreme weather conditions, war, lockout, strikes or other labour disturbances, explosions, fire, invasion, insurrection, blockade, embargo, riot, flood, earthquake, including all accidents to piers, shiploaders, and/or mills, factories, barges, or machinery, railway and canal stoppage by ice or frost, any rules or regulations of governments or any interference or acts or directions of governments, the restraint of princes, restrictions on monetary transfers and exchanges;

d) It cannot be overcome by reasonable endeavors from the Party affected.”

The claim arose from the fact that RTI had chartered in 7 vessels when MUR, alleging force majeure, suspended performance of the COA in April 2018, and was based on the difference between the COA and chartered in rates for these 7 vessels.

The tribunal accepted that the effect of both “primary” and “secondary” sanctions was drastic. Thus, normal commercial counterparties would be frightened of trading with the party that has been sanctioned, bank finance was likely to be frozen, and underwriters would be reluctant to insure normal trading activities. The tribunal also held that sanctions had an impact on the ability of the Charterers to make US dollar payments to the Owners. The tribunal held that, but for one point, the Owners’ case on force majeure succeeded. The point on which it failed was that, applying the terms of the force majeure clause, it could have been “overcome by reasonable endeavours from the Party affected.” This was because the tribunal considered that the exercise of reasonable endeavours required the Owners to accept a proposal made by the Charterers to make payment in €. The tribunal described this as a “completely realistic alternative” to the payment obligation in the COA, which was to pay in US dollars.

Jacobs J held that the Tribunal had erred in their finding that “reasonable endeavours” required the Owners to accept the Charterers’ proposal to make payment in a non-contractual currency. A party does not have to perform the contract otherwise than in accordance with the contract in order to avoid a force majeure event. There was no reason to construe the force majeure clause as being concerned only with contractual obligations directly concerned with loading and discharging: the force majeure event may have an impact on other contractual obligations which then have the causative impact required by clause 36.3 (b). Jacobs J noted “Clause 36.3 (b) is an important part of the force majeure clause: it identifies the necessary consequence, as a matter of causation, of the “event or state of affairs” described in other parts of the clause. However, it is clear from clause 36.3 (c) that there may be a wide range of different matters which bring about the consequence that loading or discharge is delayed or prevented. Those matters include “restrictions on monetary transfers and exchanges”.

Interruption of laytime and demurrage due to owners refusing to berth.

In London Arbitration 12/22 a dispute arose as to demurrage due under a charter on an amended Gencon 94 form for a voyage carrying coal from Indonesia to China.  The owners refused to berth the vessel when ordered to do so by the charterers, because of the probability of a delay in commencing discharge because the storage yard to which the charterers intended to discharge the cargo was full. Charterers did not confirm they would reimburse the owners for berthing charges levied on the vessel during the period of non-discharge, and the vessel therefore remained at the anchorage until space became available.

The tribunal found that berthing charges levied on the vessel fell to the account of owners under 13(a) of the Gencon 94 form which provides “Taxes and Dues Clause (a) On Vessel – The Owners shall pay all dues, charges and taxes customarily levied on the Vessel, howsoever the amount thereof may be assessed.” The cost of using the berth was not part of the cost of cargo operations, which were for charterer’s account under cl.5.

The tribunal found that following The Stolt Spur [2002] 1 Lloyd’s Rep 786, any non-availability, whether it affected cargo operations or not, or even if none were planned, was sufficient to prevent laytime and or demurrage running. The owners were in breach of their obligation to have their vessel available, whether called upon to perform cargo operations or not, and this applied to a ship at anchorage, especially were a berth was free.

Demurrage an exclusive remedy: the Court of Appeal gives judgment in The Eternal Bliss – Simon Rainey QC & Tom Bird

The Court of Appeal has today given judgment in The Eternal Bliss on the availability of general damages in addition to demurrage arising from delay. Allowing the appeal, the Court held that demurrage liquidates the whole of the damages arising from a charterer’s breach of charter in failing to complete cargo operations within the laytime.

The appeal raised a point on which there was no previous binding authority and which has, for almost 100 years, divided eminent judges and commentators. The leadig textbooks were split on the issue. 

Scrutton took the position that where the charterer’s breach causes the shipowner damage in addition to the detention of the vessel, losses can be recovered in addition to demurrage. But the authors of Voyage Charters said the better view was that the shipowner could only recover such losses if it could show a separate breach of contract (one other than the failure to load or discharge the cargo within the time allowed).

The dispute in this case arose from a voyage charter for the carriage of soybeans from Brazil to China. The charter was drawn up on an amended Norgrain form, which provided that demurrage, if incurred, was to be paid at a daily rate or pro rata.

After arriving at the discharge port, the vessel was kept at the anchorage for 31 days due to port congestion and lack of storage space ashore. Post discharge, it was said that the cargo exhibited significant moulding and caking throughout the stow in most of the cargo holds. The owners commenced arbitration against the charterers seeking to recover the cost of settling the cargo claim. The sole breach of contract relied on was the charterers’ failure to discharge within the laytime. The charterers contended that demurrage was the owners’ exclusive remedy for that breach.

The parties invited the Court to determine this point of law on assumed facts under s.45 of the Arbitration Act 1996. At first instance, Andrew Baker J found for the shipowner. He held that the cargo claim liabilities were a different type of loss to the detention of the vessel and that the shipowner could recover damages without proving a separate breach of contract. The 1991 decision in The Bonde (in which Potter J had reached the opposite conclusion) was, he said, wrongly decided.

Like the first instance judge, the Court of Appeal approached the point as one of principle, noting that distinguished judges have struggled, without success, to discern a ratio on this issue in Reidar v Arcos (the 1926 decision to which the long debate is often traced back). In delivering the Court’s judgment, Males LJ held that the case turned on the proper meaning of the term “demurrage” as it is used in the charterparty. The Court of Appeal concluded that, “in the absence of any contrary indication in a particular charterparty, demurrage liquidates the whole of the damages arising from a charterer’s breach of charter in failing to complete cargo operations within the laytime” (para 52).

This is a significant judgment on a major point of shipping law. In reversing the first instance decision, the Court of Appeal has given a much broader scope of the meaning of “demurrage” and treated it in much the same way as a standard liquidated damages clause, rather than limiting it to a particular type of loss. But this may not be the last word on the issue, which given the lively debate would benefit from clarification from the Supreme Court.

Simon Rainey QC and Tom Bird acted for the shipowner, instructed by Nick Austin and Mike Adamson of Reed Smith LLP.