Misrepresentation and “Reservation of Rights” in Charterparties

SK Shipping Euorope Ltd v. Capital VLCC 3 Corp (C Challenger) [2022] EWCA Civ 231

The charterers entered into a charterparty contract with the owners of the C Challenger in February 2017 for a period of two years. The charterparty contained a term warranting fuel consumption and speed. Following problems with a turbocharger, the charterers alleged inter alia that the owners had misrepresented the vessel’s performance capabilities. The charterers raised the issue concerning potential misrepresentation on the part of the owner of the capabilities of the chartered vessel during a meeting in London on 21 March 2017. It was not until 19 October 2017 that the charterers purported to rescind for misrepresentation or to terminate for repudiatory breach. During the period of March- September 2017, the charterers continued to use the vessel (by fixing occasionally sub-fixtures); deduct periodically from hire and reserve their rights.

The following day, the owners purported to terminate the charterparty on the basis that the charterers’ message was itself a renunciation.

The trial judge (Foxton, J) found that there was no actionable misrepresentation. Furthermore, it was held that charterers’ conduct (especially fixing the vessel for a sub-charterer in July 2017 for a voyage to Tunjung Pelapas) was incompatible with an attempt to reserve rights to set aside the charterparty for misrepresentation) even though they expressly indicated that they “reserve their rights” after alleging that the owners misrepresented the capabilities of the chartered vessel (i.e. speed and consumption) during charter negotiations. The charterers appealed on both grounds.

Was there an actionable misrepresentation?

The key to the charterers’ appeal was a letter sent on behalf of the owner during pre-contract negotiations on 22 November 2016. The charterers argued that the representations made to them in that letter with regard to the chartered vessel’s last three voyages, its average speed and performance, included a representation as to future performance; and such representation was repeated in each of the parties’ subsequent communications by the restatement of the same data; and the trial judge was erred in law in concluding that there was no inducement

The Court of Appeal found that on an objective reading of the 22 November 2016 letter, a prospective charterer would have understood it be saying “this is how my vessel has performed on its most recent voyages and these are the warranties which I am prepared to give” and nothing more. It can, therefore, be safely concluded that there was no representation as to the future performance of the vessel with regard to speed and consumption. The tribunal also found that the explanation in the 22 November 2016 letter relating to the average of the vessel’s last three voyages was deliberately omitted once the parties began to negotiate. The natural conclusion that emerges from that is that they did not become part of the negotiations on which the charter in dispute was based or became “embedded” in the charterparty. (given that the Court already found that the representations in the letter did not include a representation as to the future, this finding had no impact on the judgment). Also, the Court was adamant that the trial judge made no error of law when concluding that there was no inducement.

Reservation of Rights

This part of the judgment has serious practical consequences for the shipping industry. A part of the industry until recently operated on the basis that the words “reserving my rights” would provide a silver bullet for an innocent party in a dispute or litigation that might follow! There is now authority to the effect that this is not necessarily the case.

The Court of Appeal agreed with the general statement that “a reservation of rights will often have the effect of preventing subsequent conduct constituting an election to affirm or rescind a contract”. However, just like the first instance judge, the Court stressed that this was not an inevitable rule. On this point, the Court agreed with the Commercial Court’s statement that actions of the charterer, i.e. nature and consequences of any demand for future performance, may in some instances be incompatible with a reservation of rights. By considering all relevant circumstances existed at the time the order to proceed to Tanjung Pelapas was given, i.e. the fact that the voyage would last two months and that the general reservations made at the time concerned other complaints, not just the misdescription of the vessel, the Court of Appeal endorsed the decision of the Commercial Court that the order was intrinsically affirmatory conduct.

Lessons!

The judgment is a good reminder that construction of the representations from an objective point of view will be vital in determining whether there is an actionable misrepresentation or not. But this is hardly new. More significant message to the industry (and lawyers) is that it should not be assumed that “reservation of rights” language will always have the effect of reserving the rights of an innocent party. This kind of language will be construed in the light of surrounding circumstances and whether it will have the desired impact will largely depend on the future actions of the innocent party.  

It is worth noting that in deliberating the consumption and speed warranty issue, the Court of Appeal in its judgment made reference to the work of late Dr Nikaki and Professor Soyer “Enhancing Standardisation and Legal Certainty through Standard Charterparty Contracts” published as Chapter 5 in Charterparties Law, Practice and Emerging Legal Issues (Informa Law, 2018)).  

          

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”.

Commercial contracts, wasted expenditure and lost profits

Anyone drafting a commercial contract these days will invariably add, somewhere, some kind of exemption clause. Unfortunately the drafter is frequently in a hurry, aware that there are a limited number of billable hours he can plausibly attribute to a mere drafting exercise; and as often as not the clause will be lifted from some precedent in the firm’s files, without too much thought about what it might actually mean in real life.

One suspects that this is essentially what had happened in Soteria Insurance Ltd v IBM United Kingdom Ltd [2022] EWCA Civ 440. But whatever the history, the result was an expensive trip to the Court of Appeal because something like £80 million turned on the issue of the understanding of relatively few words.

To simplify, IBM agreed in 2014 to install a computer system for an insurance company, CISGIL, for a price of about £50 million. The contract contained a term which, while allowing a list of specific types of claim characterised as “direct loss” in the event of breach, contained a general disclaimer (Clause 23.3) as follows:

“[N]either party shall be liable to the other or any third party for any Losses arising under and/or in connection with this Agreement (whether in contract, tort (including negligence), breach of statutory or otherwise) which are indirect or consequential Losses, or for loss of profit, revenue, savings (including anticipated savings), data …, goodwill, reputation (in all cases whether direct or indirect) even if such Losses were foreseeable and notwithstanding that a party had been advised of the possibility that such Losses were in the contemplation of the other party or any third party”

There was also a damages cap of roughly £80 million.

Delays occurred; things went wrong; CIGSIL declined to pay a stage invoice tendered by IBM; and the contract came to an end. Each side blamed the other for the debacle. The judge (see [2021] EWHC 347 (TCC)) and the Court of Appeal both held that it had been IBM who had wrongfully repudiated the contract; with the tedious details of this we are not concerned.

At this point, however, the issue of damages arose. Seeing difficulties in claiming for its consequential loss of profits because of Clause 23.3, CIGSIL chose to quantify its claim instead by reference to its wasted expenditure, a figure eventually quantified by O’Farrell J at about £122 million. IBM at this point said that this was an exercise in pettifogging: whatever label CIGSIL chose to put on its claim, it was at bottom trying to claim for its loss of profits, which was precisely what Clause 23.3 prevented it doing.

O’Farrell J (see [2021] EWHC 347 (TCC) at [680]-[686] sided with IBM. CIGSIL was, she said, claiming for its loss of bargain; the measure of that loss of bargain was “the savings, revenues and profits that would have been achieved had the IT solution been successfully implemented.” And while CIGSIL was entitled to frame its claim as one for wasted expenditure if it so wished, that simply represented a different method of quantifying the loss of its bargain; it did not “change the characteristics of the losses for which compensation is sought”. It followed that the claim was inadmissible.

This certainly looked like a robust approach. It also chimed in neatly with modern academic analysis of expectation and reliance damages. At bottom both seek, in different ways, to put a claimant in the position he would be in had the contract been kept; either by showing the gains he would have made but now won’t, or by showing that an investment is now wasted that otherwise wouldn’t have been.

Nevertheless the Court of Appeal was having none of it. On a proper reading of Clause 23.3, the intention was indeed to exclude claims based on profits foregone, but to leave intact claims based on wasted expense. Even if both were similar animals on deep analysis, wasted expenditure did not fall within the meaning of loss of profit or revenue; from which it followed that in the absence of a specific reference to wasted expense, this remained recoverable.

Despite the seductive, apparently no-nonsense approach of O’Farrell J, we think the Court of Appeal got it right. When dealing with the interpretation of exception clauses, the fundamental issue is not any question of academic argument or analysis, but simply what reasonable businesspeople would have made of the words used. And a non-lawyer would undoubtedly say that money wasted was not the same thing as future gain foregone. Furthermore, as the Court pointed out, they would also have seen that there could be good reason to allow the former on the basis that it was likely to be relatively quantifiable and predictable, but to exclude the latter as likely to be open-ended and unquantifiable.

This case is thus good news for business certainty. Nevertheless, those drafting commercial contracts would do well not only to read it but to draft their contracts even more carefully. If those in the position of IBM do not like a result under which they remain liable for seven-figure sums in wasted expenditure, they can always exclude such claims expressly. They should also perhaps take the trouble to add that any such limit applies also to cases of repudiation, since even despite Soteriou, as a result of the decision in Kudos Catering (UK) v Manchester Central Convention Complex [2013] EWCA Civ 38, there remains a possibility that some clauses may be construed as being limited to mere defective performance and not applying to actual repudiation.

If a client complains about the number of billable hours devoted to such issues of drafting, a solicitor can always murmur in his ear that the investment is probably a good one. The Court of Appeal is an expensive place to end up in, however interesting its judgments may be to other practitioners and law professors, and no sensible businessman should want to go there if he can possibly help it.

Sale of goods and summary judgment for the price: common sense rules.

Sale of goods law can at times be a bit esoteric. When it is, the difficulty can lie in making sure it accords with common sense as practised by businesspeople. Martin Spencer J managed just that today in dismissing what is best described as a pettifogging defence which counsel (absolutely properly, given his duty to his client) had raised to what looked like a straightforward claim for payment for building materials.

In Readie Construction v Geo Quarries [2021] EWHC 3030 (QB) Geo agreed to supply something over £600,000-worth of aggregate to builders Readie for a warehouse project in Bedfordshire. After most of the deliveries had been made and paid for, it turned out that something seemed to have gone badly wrong. Following heavy rain, the aggregate that had been used to form the base of the warehouse had melted into some sort of unprepossessing slush. Readie told Geo to stop deliveries and refused to accept or pay for the final batch, saying that Geo must have supplied the wrong substance. Geo invoiced Readie for the balance of the price and sought summary judgment, invoking the following Clause 4.1 from the sale contract:

The Customer shall make payment in full without any deduction or withholding whatsoever on any account by the end of the calendar month following the month in which the relevant invoice is dated. If payment is not received in full when due the Customer shall pay interest on the unpaid amount at a rate per annum which is 8% and above Bank of England base lending rate from time to time and the Customer shall pay to, or reimburse the Company on demand, on a full indemnity basis, all costs and liabilities incurred by the Company in relation to the suing for, or recovering, any sums due including, without limitation the costs of any proceedings in relation to a contract between the Company and a Customer incurred in or suffered by any default or delay by the Customer in performing any of its obligations. Payment shall only be made to the bank account nominated in writing by the Company on the invoice. Time of payment is of the essence.” (Our emphasis)

Straightforward, you might have thought? Not necessarily. Readie’s first argument was that the clause didn’t protect a seller who delivered the wrong goods, rather than goods that were correct but bad: after all, if it did, they said, it would mean that a seller who delivered nothing at all, or something obviously irrelevant such as sand, would still have the right to be paid after submitting its invoice. This point Martin Spencer J adroitly — and we on the blog think rightly — got rid of by saying that the right to be paid would be implicitly conditional on a bona fide purported delivery.

The next argument was that Clause 4.1 ousted counterclaims and set-offs but not Readie’s would-be right to abatement of the price. There was authority that some clauses would indeed be interpreted that way. But his Lordship remained unconvinced that this one was of that type: it was comprehensive in its terms, and there was no reason not to interpret it in an accordingly wide way, as requiring the buyer to pay in full, no questions asked, and argue the toss later. This again seems, if we may say so, highly sensible. Hardly any businesspeople know the difference between a set-off and a right to abatement; indeed, one suspects the proportion of practising lawyers is also embarrassingly low. However attractive it might seem to a law professor with time on their hands, one should not lightly assume a clause is meant to invoke a technical legal distinction which lawyers and laypeople alike are largely unfamiliar with.

Lastly, it being accepted that because of a retention of title clause s.49(1) of the Sale of Goods Act 1979 did not give Geo a right to the price on the basis that property had passed, Readie argued that s.49(2), allowing a claim for payment on a day certain irrespective of delivery, did not apply either. The right to payment, they said, was dependent on delivery, or at least purported delivery: how could payment then be due “irrespective of delivery”? The answer, again we suggest correct, was that “irrespective of delivery” means simply “not fixed at the time of delivery”, thus ousting the presumption of cash on delivery reflected in s.28.

To this latter question there might have been an easier answer, save for a curious concession on Geo’s part that they could not succeed in a claim for the price unless they were within either s.49(1) or s.49(2). Since The Res Cogitans [2016] AC 1034 it has been clear that freedom of contract exists as to the time and circumstances when payment becomes due, whether or not either limb of s.49 is satisfied. It must have been at least arguable that Clause 4.1 simply provided its own solution and needed to be applied in its own terms without any reference to s.49 at all. Another note, perhaps, for your for the file on the minutiae of bringing claims for summary judgment for goods supplied.

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.

Reflective loss — some unfinished business

Life in lugubrious legal lockdown was briefly relieved when last year the Supreme Court in Sevilleja v Marex Financial Ltd [2021] A.C. 39 pruned back the luxuriant growth of the reflective loss rule. To remind you, the reflective loss rule is the principle that you cannot sue X for damages in so far as (i) you are a shareholder in Y Ltd; (ii) Y Ltd could itself have sued X; and (iii) the loss you seek to have made good simply reflects the depreciation in your shareholding due to the damage wrongfully caused by X to Y. Marex had the effect of limiting this restrictive rule rule to claims by shareholders, and scotching the heresy that it extended more generally to any case where X was guilty of a wrong against Y which incidentally cased loss to some third party Z (the claimant in that case being not a shareholder but a mere creditor).

By common consent, Marex left a fair number of loose ends to be tidied up later. In a Cayman appeal today, Primeo Fund v Bank of Bermuda & Ors [2021] UKPC 22, the Privy Council neatly knotted one such, namely that of timing. Granted that a shareholder in Y Ltd cannot sue X for loss reflecting the diminution in his holding in Y Ltd, what is the relevant time: is it when the cause of action arises, or when the claimant sues?

Simplifying as far as possible, Primeo was the Cayman Islands investment arm of the Bank of Austria. In the 1990s it appointed as custodians and investment advisers a couple of companies connected with the Bank of Bermuda, R1 and R2. It was then unlucky enough to be introduced to BLMIS LLC, in effect a unit trust operated by the redoubtable Ponzi fraudster Bernie Madoff. Large sums of money were entrusted by Primeo to BLMIS, most of which (it was found) were immediately appropriated by Mr Madoff and his pals.

In 2007 Primeo’s investment was restructured: its interests in BLMIS were transferred to a separate corporate vehicle, Herald Fund SPC, and in exchange Primeo got shares in Herald. At the same time R1 and R2 agreed to function as custodians and investment advisers to Herald.

Just before Christmas 2008 the Madoff house of cards collapsed, and with it BLMIS. As part of the ensuing litigation, Primeo – itself by then in liquidation – sued R1 and R2 for failing in the years before 2007 to alert it to indications that Mr Madoff was an obvious crook, and thus causing it to entrust more money to him and not to withdraw what it had while the going was good. One defence was reflective loss. R1 and R2 argued that, in so far as Herald could have sued them for loss caused to it (on the basis that they had negligently allowed it to take over assets from Primeo which it was now clear had been of very doubtful value all along), and that because as a result of events in 2007 Primeo’s loss now fell to be reckoned by the diminution of the value of its holding in Herald, the case fell squarely within the reflective loss rule.

The Cayman courts agreed, but the Privy Council was having none of it. It rightly pointed out that since Marex it had been clear that reflective loss was a rule of substantive law, rather than one of damages or title to sue. If so, it followed that the relevant time for seeing whether it applied was the time of the wrong for which compensation was sought. In Primeo, at that time there could have been no question of reflective loss: it was simply a case of allegedly bad advice leading to direct investment in a fraudulent scheme. It was at that moment that Primeo’s rights had crystallised, and nothing that happened later could take them away. It followed that the case was outside the reflective loss principle entirely.

In deciding as it did, the Privy Council had to deal with one awkward decision of the Court of Appeal, Nectrus Ltd v UCP Plc [2021] EWCA Civ 57. In that case, essentially a mirror image of Primeo, a claimant had as a result of allegedly negligent advice invested in securities through a wholly-owned subsidiary. Since the subsidiary could also have sued the adviser, the claim was fairly and squarely within the principle. However, by the time the action was brought the claimant had divested itself of the subsidiary and its holding; and the Court of Appeal had held that this removed the reflective loss bar. However, the Privy Council rightly held that such reasoning could not stand scrutiny, and that Nectrus had been wrongly decided on the point.

It may be that this open discountenancing of Nectrus as wrongly decided will be taken as an express statement that English courts should no longer follow Nectrus, something which since 2016 has been possible in the Privy Council: see Lord Neuberger in Willers v Joyce (No 2) [2018] A.C. 843 at [21]. This blog certainly hopes so. It would be very unfortunate were a judge at first instance to feel constrained to follow Nectrus on the basis that this bound him, whereas a mere decision of the Privy Council (which is not technically an English court) did not. But only time, and the inclination of litigants to put their money where their mouth is, will tell.

Liquidated damages and the ticking clock

Time to get back to the drawing-board, perhaps, if you’re a construction contractor. Suppose you you agree to do work and include this liquidated damages term:

“If CONTRACTOR fails to deliver work within the time specified and the delay has not been introduced by EMPLOYER, CONTRACTOR shall be liable to pay the penalty at the rate of 0.1% of undelivered work per day of delay from the due date for delivery up to the date EMPLOYER accepts such work. …”

Things drag on: there’s some work you never actually do at all, and in the end the employer terminates the contract. Can the employer claim liquidated damages for the period between the due date and termination, on the basis that the meter started ticking when you should have finished the work and only ground to a halt when he walked away and put an end to the whole arrangement? Or is he limited to proving his loss in the ordinary fashion, on the argument that if work is never accepted (ex hypothesi the case where it was never done in the first place), the clause makes no sense and therefore has to fall away?

In Triple Point Technology, Inc v PTT Public Co Ltd [2021] UKSC 2 the Supremes, reversing the Court of Appeal, chose the former solution. It was, it said, more commercial that once the meter had begun to tick the accrued rights to payment that arose de die in diem as a result should be preserved, and would not be liable to disappear in a puff of legal smoke if at some time in the future it became clear that the work would never be done. Furthermore, said the court, the opposite answer would create a perverse incentive: assuming the liquidated damages clause was more profitable to the employer that his right to damages, it might be in the interests of the contractor not to tender performance at all.

This is arguably right, though not incontrovertibly so (one could equally well contend that if the parties had intended that the clause should apply in the case of non-performance it would not have been difficult for them to say “up to the date EMPLOYER accepts such work, or the Contract is terminated by EMPLOYER, whichever shall be the sooner”.) But for future contracts this does not matter to much, since the ball is in the court of contract draftsmen.

Nevertheless, one thing might be worth contemplating for contractors. Having shied away from creating a perverse incentive in the contractor to drag his feet, the UKSC has arguably created an equal and opposite one in the employer. What if, after relations have de facto broken down without the work being done, such that there is now no practical chance of their completion and acceptance, the employer smugly writes to the contractor saying he continues to hold the contract open? True, the courts would no doubt find a way to prevent the clock potentially ticking on until the last trump (see MSC Mediterranean Shipping Co SA v Cottonex Anstalt [2016] EWCA Civ 789, noted here in this blog). But a couple of months or so of foot-dragging at 0.1% per day would be distinctly profitable if they led to a windfall claim for 6.1% of the relevant price with no questions asked. Indeed a lawyer who didn’t raise this possibility with his clients might face some awkward questions later.

There is, however, a possible straightforward answer. There is much to be said for contractors arguing for the insertion of a bespoke provision applying whenever a right to terminate had arisen in the employer, allowing the contractor to put him to his election and in the absence of an election to terminate to put an end to the running of liquidated damages for delay.

Two other issues arose in the case about the drafting of the damages limitation clause. But these turned very much on the interpretation of the wording used, and are of little general interest. Meanwhile, however, if they don’t like the result in PTT lawyers are on notice to get out their word-processors and go over their precedents.

Recap term in sale contract prevails over printed incorporated terms.

Septo Trading Inc v Tintrade Ltd (The Nounou) [2021] EWCA Civ 718 (18 May 2021) involved a dispute under an international sale contract of fuel oil as to the effect of a quality certificate issued by an independent inspector at the load port  and whether it was intended to be conclusive evidence of the quality of the consignment.

The recap email of confirmation of the sale said that the certificate would be binding on the parties in the absence of fraud or manifest error, but it also provided for the BP 2007 General Terms and Conditions for FOB Sales (“the BP Terms”) to apply “where not in conflict with the above”. Those terms say that the quality certificate will be conclusive and binding “for invoicing purposes”, but without prejudice to the buyer’s right to bring a quality claim. The quality certificate issued by the independent inspector certified that the fuel oil was in accordance with the contractual specification at the load port.

Teare J, [2020] EWHC 1795 (Comm), found as a fact that it was not and held that the BP Terms qualified the Recap term. Had this stood alone, it would have excluded the buyer’s quality claim, but there was no conflict between Recap term and the BP terms which could be read together so as to give effect to both of them. The buyer’s claim succeeded and damages of US $3,058,801 were assessed.

The Court of Appeal, for whom Males LJ gave the leading judgment, have now overruled Teare J and found that there was inconsistency between the two sets of terms and that the Recap term prevailed. Applying the approach adopted by the Court of Appeal in Pagnan SpA v Tradax Ocean Transportation SA [1987] 3 All ER 565, the starting point was the meaning of the Recap term and a provisional view of its meaning needed to be formed, without taking account of the term which is alleged to be inconsistent. The Recap term provided that the quality certificate issued by the mutually acceptable independent inspector is binding on the parties, so that (assuming always that the certificate shows the product to be on-spec) the buyer cannot thereafter bring a claim on the ground that the quality of the product is not in accordance with the contract. Nobody would think, reading the Recap term, that the word “binding” meant “binding for invoicing purposes”.

Next the BP terms had to be considered and Section 1.2 provides that the quality certificate is to be “conclusive and binding on both parties for invoicing purposes” and that the buyer is obliged to make payment in full, but that this is “without prejudice to the rights of either party to make any claim pursuant to Section 26”, that is to say a claim that the product is not in accordance with the specification. This conflicted with the Recap term and the two provisions cannot fairly and sensibly be read together. The printed term did not merely qualify or supplement the Recap term, but rather deprived it of all practical effect.

Similarly, section 1.3 of the BP Terms which provided for a fundamentally different testing regime from that set out in the Recap term was held to have no application. The Recap provided for the independent inspector’s certificate of quality to be binding, with the parties free to agree (as they did) what instructions should be given to the inspector which will lead to the issue of that binding certificate. Section 1.3 undermined this regime by insisting that if the parties agree that the certificate of quality should be based on shore tank samples, it is nevertheless a condition of the contract that the seller must provide the same quality of product at the vessel’s permanent hose connection as set out in the certificate of quality.

No strikeout for Bangladeshi ship scrapping claim: but don’t hold your breath

As we mentioned on this blog last August, these days you have to be careful who you sell an old ship to. In Begum v Maran [2021] EWCA Civ 326 MUK, the English managers of a Liberian ship fit only for scrap, helped arrange her sale to a buyer who paid fairly handsomely. That buyer proceeded (entirely foreseeably) to have her scrapped by a thoroughly dodgy outfit called Zuma in a dangerous and environmentally irresponsible way on a Bangladeshi beach. A worker engaged in stripping the hulk fell to his death. Prospects of recovery from Zuma being low, if for no other reason because of a local one-year statute of limitations during the running of which nothing had been done, his widow sued MUK as of right in England because of its domicile here, alleging negligence. Jay J decided that it was arguable that MUK had owed the man a duty of care, and that the local limitations law might be circumvented, and refused a strikeout. MUK appealed.

The Court of Appeal yesterday allowed the case to go ahead, though only very grudgingly and on a more limited basis than Jay J. The Court was particularly sceptical on the limitation point. Under Rome II, applicable to the claim as it predated Brexit (and still applicable to post-Brexit claims in its domesticated form), the law governing the claim – including on the subject of limitation – was Bangladeshi. This immediately defeated the claimant unless she could escape it. The judge had regarded as possibly plausible a contention that Art.7 of Rome II allowed her to invoke English law because her husband’s death had resulted from environmental damage caused by an event here – namely, MTM’s arrangements for sale of the ship. But this was dismissed on appeal as unarguable: rightly so, since this simply wasn’t an environmental case in the first place. But the court did see it as arguable – just – that the limitation period was so short that an English court might disapply it on public policy grounds under Art.26 of Rome II, and ordered a preliminary issue on the point.

On the substantive points, the widow argued either that MUK had owed her husband a duty of care on the principle of Donoghue v Stevenson [1932] AC 562, or that MUK’s sale of the vessel when it should have known that it was likely to be dangerously demolished had created an immediate danger to her husband’s life and thus engendered a duty in respect of the bad practices of his employers Zuma.

Giving the lead judgment, Coulson J was very sceptical on the first point. This wasn’t, he said, a case of a disposal of a dangerous thing, but rather the furnishing of an opportunity for a third party to be negligent in respect of a thing not inherently perilous. Whether this could give rise to a duty his Lordship thought very doubtful indeed – but still not quite implausible enough to justify an immediate strikeout. Our view is that the doubts were fully justified. We normally expect employers to look after their employees; to put a duty on third parties to police the behaviour of contractors they engaged in that respect is to say the least drastic. Should I really have to scrutinise or supervise the employment practices of the builder I employ to extend my house in case one of his workers is hurt? It seems doubtful.

On the second point, the difficulty (a considerable one) was the general rule that people were not generally made responsible for the wrongs of others, however foreseeable. But, said Coulson J, there were possible exceptions where the danger in question had been created by a defendant. And while it seemed unlikely that this would apply here, the law was not absolutely clear and the prospect of persuading a sceptical judge to recognise a duty of care wasn’t dismal enough to deny the widow the chance to argue the toss. Her prospects might be slim, but she was entitled to chance her arm.

This case will possibly be hailed in the liberal media as an advance in the campaign to make big business in Britain take responsibility for the activities of its dodgier partners abroad. But commercial lawyers know better than to engage in chicken-counting. Remember, the claimant here only avoided a strikeout by the skin of her teeth. Her chances of recovering much over and above a nuisance value or reputation-saving settlement remain, it seems fair to say, pretty slim.

Oh, and one more thing. The ability to sue a UK-domiciled company here as of right disappeared with Brussels I Recast in a puff of celebratory Brexit firework smoke at 2300 hours on 31 December last. It follows that, barring swift adherence by the UK to the Lugano convention (increasingly unlikely by all the indications), any future claimant basing their complaint on events in a far-off land with no ostensible connection to England will now also face the prospect of a forum non conveniens application. This may well have an appreciable chance of success. There is, after all, no immediately apparent reason why the English courts should act as the policemen of work practices worldwide, hoewever much sympathy we may feel for a claimant personally.

In short, the boardrooms of corporate Britain, and even more those of their liability insurers, may well see some sighs of relief, if not discreet socially-distant celebrations, in the next few days.