Condition Precedents/Warranties in Insurance Contracts

Wheeldon Brothers Waste Limited v Millennium Insurance Company Limited [2018] EWHC 834 (TCC)

Constructing the meaning of words used in insurance contracts is a regular function of courts. In this case, the meaning of various terms, which appeared in the policy that Wheeldon (the assured) had with Millennium Insurance Co Ltd (the insurer), received judicial airing. The assured owned a waste processing plant which was destroyed in a major fire in June 2014. The assured’s claim for indemnity was turned down by the insurer who argued that the assured was in breach of several terms of the policy. The assured brought this action seeking declaratory relief that the insurer is liable under the policy for the loss.

The Deputy Judge, Mr Jonathan Acton Davis QC, first of all sought to identify the cause of fire at the plant. The plant produced solid recovered fuel by removing non-combustible components from inputted waste material transported on conveyor belts. It was discovered that a failed bearing caused a misalignment of one of the conveyor belts which created a gap between it and a trommel (a rotating industrial sieve). Combustible materials which would have been otherwise caught by the sieve, dropped through the gap at the bottom of the conveyor and began to accumulate there. The friction caused by the failed bearing led to hot metal fragments dropping into the accumulated combustible material thus starting a fire.

The insurer, inter alia, argued that the assured was in breach of:

  1. A condition precedent to liability which provided that “combustible waste must be stored at least 6m away from any fixed plant” (storage condition)
  2. A warranty that required “all combustible stocks and/or wastes to be removed from picking station base and/or trommels and/or hopper feeds and balers etc when business is closed.” (combustible materials warranty)
  3. A condition precedent which required the assured “to maintain all machinery in efficient working order in accordance with the manufacturer’s specifications and guidelines and keep records of all such maintenance” (maintenance condition)

At the plant, there were potentially combustible materials, such as a combination of glass, stones and soils which passed through the sieve, and were kept 6 meters of the fixed plants. Also, combustible materials had accumulated in the gap created by the conveyor belt misalignment. The Deputy Judge held that the presence of such materials did not amount to breach of the “storage condition” in the policy. It was stressed that the word “combustible” should be given the meaning, which would be understood by an ordinary person and not its scientific meaning, which is anything which burns when ignited. On that basis, a layman would not regard a combination of “glass, stones and soils” as combustible. The judge also indicated that the word “store” implied a degree of permanence and a conscious decision by the assured to designate an area to keep a particular material. On that basis, materials accumulated in the gap created by malfunctioning cannot said to be “stored” within the meaning of the condition in the policy.

With regard to (ii), the combustible materials warranty, the assured provided evidence that there was a system requiring employees to undertake a visual inspection and carry out the necessary cleaning each day. The judge held that even though the system, without more, was insufficient, the fact that it was in place and had been adhered to were adequate to comply with the warranty.

On third point, the judge found that the failure of the bearing, without more, did not conclusively mean that there was a breach of this condition. In any event, there was no evidence of any breach. As to the requirement to keep formal records, the judge agreed with the assured that their system of daily and weekly checklist was adequate. Furthermore, the judge stressed that if the insurer required records to be kept in a particular format, this should have been prescribed clearly in the maintenance condition.

Although the focus of the case is construction of certain terms in an insurance contract, it is a reminder to insurers that they need to be clear and specify the particulars carefully in the clause if they want to attribute a specific or scientific meaning to a word or requirement on the part of the assured. Otherwise, any word or requirement in a condition precedent or warranty is likely to be construed by courts as an ordinary person would read them.

It should be noted that request for permission to appeal against this judgment has recently been turned down by the Court of Appeal.

Insurable Interest in Insurance- Adopting A Commercial Solution

Broadgrain Commodities Inc v. Continental Casualty Company [2017] ONSC 4721

Does a CIF seller still have an insurable interest in a cargo policy after the goods are delivered to the carrier (i.e. risk of loss or damage to the goods is transferred to the buyer under the CIF contract)? This was the main debate in the case before the Ontario Superior Court of Justice (Canadian Marine Insurance Act 1993 is similar to the unamended version of the UK Marine Insurance Act 1906).

Here,a cargo of 26 containers of sesame seeds were sold by the claimant (Broadgrain) on CIF basis and insured by the insurers under an open policy which intended to insure the claimant and its property as well as the property of others in respect of which the claimant had an obligation to insure under various contracts entered into during the insurance period. The cargo was loaded on board the carrying vessel in Nigeria in October. It was common ground that the risk had passed to the buyer at that stage. The full contract amount was paid by 12 December by the buyers. Under the sale contract, the title in the good was to pass upon payment and the buyer granted the seller a security interest in the cargo until all amounts had been paid. When the vessel arrived at its destination, Xingang, on 17 December, it was discovered the goods had been damaged during transit and the claimant sought indemnity under the insurance policy from the underwriters.                    

The insurers moved for a summary judgment to dismiss the action on two grounds: i)the claimant did not have “insurable interest” in the goods at the time of the loss; and ii) the claimant did not sustain any loss as, despite the damage to the goods, it was paid in  full by the buyer for the shipment in question.

On the first point, the insurers sought to rely on two Federal Court decisions(Green Forest Lumber Ltd v. General Security Insurance Co of Canada [1977] 2F.C. 351 (F.C.T.); aff’d [1978] 2 F.C. 773 (F.C.A), aff’d [1980] 1 S.C.R. 176 and Union Carbide Corp v. Fednav Ltd [1997] F.C.J.No. 665 (F.C.T)) which contained statements made in obiter to the effect that, where goods are shipped on CIF terms and the goods are loaded on board the ship, the seller no longer has an insurable interest and cannot claim under a policy of insurance. 

The court, rightly so, indicated that the Supreme Court of Canada in Kosmopoulosv. Constitution Insurance [1987] 1 SCR 2 has adopted a non-technical definition of “insurable interest” pointing out that any real interest of any kind in a marine adventure should qualify as an insurable interest. It was stressed that a contrary solution would act to the detriment of international trade. On that basis, it was held that in the present case even though the risk passed upon loading in October, and the title passed upon payment, the seller’s retention of security interest would qualify as an equitable relation to the adventure such as to give the seller an insurable interest that subsisted throughout the voyage.

However, judge’s finding on the insurable interest point was not adequate to secure victory for the claimant.  The summary judgment for insurers was granted on the second ground. Accordingly, it was held that the claimant had suffered no loss as payment had been made by the buyer in full and the assertion that the buyer had reduced payments on subsequent cargoes was dismissed for lack of evidence.

The case is a yet another illustration of the fact that when defining insurable interest, courts are taking a more liberal stance as advocated in various English judgments (e.g. The Moonacre [1992] 2 Lloyd’s rep 501; National Oilwell (UK) Ltd v. Davy Offshore Ltd [1993] 2 Lloyd’s Rep 380 and The Martin P [2003] EWHC 3470 (Comm)) and not likely to follow the lead of Macaura v. Northern Assurance Co Ltd (1925) 21 LIL Rep 333 to insist that a legal or equitable relation must exist between the policy and the subject matter insured. It is safe, therefore, to say that courts are likely to find insurable interest in cases where they are convinced that the assured has not entered into the policy as an act of wager or is not attempting to make an illegitimate gain from the insurance transaction and as long as some kind of connection (even merely economic) between the insured property and the assured exists.             

Where is General Average?

Jurisdiction decisions in the shipping context follow each other in close succession. Yesterday we had another, from Males J, of some interest to insurers: namely, Griffin Underwriting Ltd v Varouxakis (The Free Goddess) [2018] EWHC 3259 (Comm).

The Free Goddess, a 22,000 dwt bulker owned by Freeseas, was seized by Somali pirates while en route to Thailand with steel coils. K & R insurers Griffin, based in Guernsey but doing business in London, paid out something over $6 million to free her, whereupon she sailed to Oman. Griffin clearly had a right to take over from Freeseas a pretty cast-iron GA claim against cargo interests: on arrival it duly entered into a settlement agreement with Freeseas under which Freeseas agreed to furnish all assistance, including preservation of security, in claiming GA and also to account to Griffin for all sums received on that basis. GA, as might be expected, was settlable and payable in London.

According to Griffin’s (as yet unestablished) allegations, Freeseas did no such thing. Instead of the obvious course of oncarrying the cargo to Thailand and claiming GA in due course, it sold the ship in Oman, destroying any security for GA and providing cargo with a counterclaim for damages which was likely to dwarf the GA liability in any case. In addition it had allegedly trousered a large sum in interim GA contributions without accounting for it. 

Freeseas not being worth powder and shot, Griffin sued one Ion Varouxakis, the Greek-domiciled owner of the company, for inducing it to break the settlement agreement. They alleged that the damage had been suffered in London and therefore they could invoke Art.7, the tort article of Brussels I Recast. Mr Varouxakis insisted that he could only be sued in Greece, arguing for good measure that this was a suit by an underwriter in a matter relating to insurance under Art.14, so the other exceptions did not apply.

In fact Mr Varouxakis was held to have waived any jurisdiction point, so the claim is going ahead in London anyway. But Males J did go on to give a view on the other points. On the issue of the loss of the right to GA, he regarded the issue of where the loss had been suffered as finely balanced, but expressed the view that the direct damage had been suffered in Oman, where he opined that the right to enforce GA had been effectively lost: the fact that GA had not been paid in London he regarded as a remoter consequence and not in account because of decisions such as Kronhofer v Mayer [2004] All ER (EC) 939. So there would have been no jurisdiction. On the other hand, he thought the loss had been suffered in London as regarded the failure to account, and so would have allowed the claim under that head to go ahead on that head in any event. As for the suggestion that this was a matter relating to insurance, he smartly rebuffed the point: insurance might be the background, but this arose out of an independent settlement agreement.

The second point was fairly obvious: if someone infringes my right to an accounting in London, it is difficult to think of anywhere apart from London where the damage occurs. The third is also welcome: the insurance rules under under Art.14 are ill-thought-out even by Euro-standards, and anything that prevents their becoming any more bloated than they already are can only be a good thing.  

This blog is less sure about the first. Saying the damage occurred in Oman gets pretty close to conflating damage with the act giving rise to it; it also means that the place of the damage in cases of this sort becomes wildly arbitrary, depending on which port a vessel happens to be in at the time. On the other hand, if GA is settled and negotiated in London, it seems fairly convincing to argue that preventing it being settled and paid there causes a direct loss within the Square Mile. Unfortunately, because the claimants won in any case, we are unlikely to see an appeal here. But this shouldn’t be regarded as necessarily the last word.


Atlantik (misplaced) Confidence — the saga continues.

Last year we dealt here with Teare J’s meticulous decision in Aspen Underwriting Ltd & Ors v Kairos Shipping Ltd [2017] EWHC 1904 (Comm), in which following the Atlantik Confidence debacle, hull underwriters, having previously paid out on the orders of her owners’ (Dutch) bank under an insurance assignment provision, now sued the bank to recover their money on the basis that the ship had been deliberately scuttled. The issue was whether the bank could insist on being sued in the Netherlands on the basis of Art.4 of Brussels I Recast. The decision was that most claims, including those based on unjust enrichment, had to be brought in the Netherlands. Howver, claims based on tortious misrepresentation and under the Misrepresentation Act 1967 could be brought here. The fact that such claims related to insurance under Art.14 was no bar, since there was no question of a large Dutch bank being a weaker party who, according to Recital 18 to the Regulation, needed to be protected from the machinations of big bad insurers.

The Court of Appeal has dismissed an appeal (seeAspen Underwriting Ltd & Ors v Credit Europe Bank NV [2018] EWCA Civ 2590). On most points it simply said that the Judge had got it absolutely right. The only exception was that it was not open to a judge, consitently with Euro-law, to take the sensible view and decline to apply Art.14 to anyone he thouht was not in fact a weaker party. But this did not matter, since in Kabeg v Mutuelles Du Mans Assurances (Case C-340/16) [2017] I.L. Pr. 31 the ECJ Advocate-General had since Teare J’s judgment accepted that Art.14 could be disapplied to a subrogee “regularly involved in the commercial or otherwise professional settlement of insurance-related claims who voluntarily assumed the realisation of the claim as party of its commercial or otherwise professional activity”. This was near enough to the position of the bank here to justify ignoring Art.14.

Some good news, in other words, for marine underwriters trying to get their money back from those acting for crooks.  On the other had, the moral we advanced in our previous article still stands: all policies in future ought to contain a term, rigorously enforced, stating that no monies will be paid out save against a signed receipt specifically submitting to the exclusive jurisdiction of the English courts in respect of any subsequent dispute respecting the payment or the policy generally.

 

Insurer’s ‘exposure’ to risk of US sanctions.

 

 

In Mamancochet Mining Ltd v Aegis Managing Agency Ltd [2018] EWHC 2643 (Comm).  the effect of the on-off-on again of US sanctions against Iran which are due to kick in again this Sunday 4 November at 1159 pm EST came under consideration. A claim under the marine insurance policy was made in respect of the theft of cargo carried from Russia to Iran in 2012, under a bill of lading naming an Iranian national was the consignee. The US sanctions regime came into effect in 2013, was lifted in 2016, and is reimposed this Sunday. The policy provided ““to the extent that …payment of such claim …would expose that insurer to any sanction, prohibition or restriction under …the trade or economic sanctions, laws, or regulations…” and the issue was whether the insurer could refuse to pay out on the ground that payment would ‘expose’ it to US and/or EU sanctions within the meaning of the policy clause.

 

Teare J held that the present clause referred to a payment which “would expose” the insurer “to any sanction, prohibition or restriction”, rather than being “exposed” to the risk of being sanctioned (in the sense of being subject to the risk of a sanction).  Before a sanction can lawfully be applied there must be conduct which is prohibited. It was not enough that that the regulatory agency in question might conclude that there was prohibited conduct (when in law there was not or may not be) and so impose a sanction. Accordingly, the clause provided that the insurer was not liable to pay a claim where payment would be prohibited under one of the named systems of law and thus “would expose” the Defendants to a sanction. Nor did the sanctions clause extinguish liability under the policy when sanctions against Iran were previously imposed in 2013.

 

The claimants had also argued that the EU Blocking Regulation[1] would preclude the claimants from refusing to pay out under the policy. In the light of the construction of the sanctions clause, this issue did not fall to be decided but Teare J saw “[c]onsiderable force in the Defendants’ “short answer” to the point, namely that the Blocking Regulation is not engaged where the insurer’s liability to pay a claim is suspended under a sanctions clause such as the one in the Policy. In such a case, the insurer is not “complying” with a third country’s prohibition but is simply relying upon the terms of the policy to resist payment.”

 

[1] Regulation (EC) 2271/96 protecting against the effects of the extra-territorial application of legislation adopted by a third country, and actions based thereon or resulting therefrom, as amended by Commission Delegated Regulation (EU) 2018/1100, amending the Blocking Regulation with effect from 7 August 2018 by including the various US sanctions against Iran

Autonomous Ships- Regulatory Work Begins

The idea of developing smart ships that have ability to navigate without human input has been around for some time and as a result of technological developments in recent years, it is believed that this could be a reality in near future.

The Maritime Safety Committee (MSC) of the International Maritime Organisation (IMO) at its most recent meeting (MSC 99) in May 2018 agreed to establish a Working Group (WC) (named as Maritime Autonomous Surface Ships (MASS) WC) to undertake a scoping exercise with a view to identifying which of the existing international instruments dealing with maritime safety should be amended and what new instruments should be developed to facilitate the operation of such vessels in international waters.

For the purposes of this exercise, a number of provisional definitions have been prescribed. Most significantly, MASS is defined as “a ship which, to varying degree, can operate independent of human interaction”. This is a very broad definition and encompasses all of the ships that are currently under consideration. The WG has prescribed four degrees of autonomy: (MSC 99/WP.9 Annex 1, para 4)

  1. Ship with automated processes and decision support. Such ships have on board seafarers to operate and control shipboard systems and functions.
  2. Remotely controlled ships with seafarers on board. The ship is controlled and operated from a distant location.
  3. Remotely controlled ships without seafarers on board. The ship is controlled and operated from a distant location.
  4. Fully autonomous ships. Here, the operating system of the ship is able to make decisions and determine actions by itself.

The categorisation seems to be rather basic but perhaps simplicity is necessary at this early stage. We suppose in case of (ii), it is envisaged that seafarers on board will have technical knowledge and knowhow to intervene and take control in case of an emergency. It is also worth noting that ever increasing cyber risks should be taken into account and especially in case of (iii), it is curious to know what steps can be taken to ensure that the safety is not compromised in a case where contact between the ship and offshore operator is lost. This could be also a significant issue with regard to vessels which have full autonomy (e.g. iv).

It is worth reminding ourselves that the scope of this exercise is restricted to instruments concerning maritime safety (i.e. COLREG 1972, SOLAS 1974, STCW 1974, SAR 1979 and International Convention on Loadlines 1966). Once smart ships become operational other problems, i.e. the liability of manufacturers/software producers, impact of cyber risks on traditional division of liability, salvage law, are also likely to arise. These issues do not form at this stage part of the IMO’s work on the subject.

It is expected that the work of the MASS WC will be completed by the end of 2020. Even then, this is only beginning of a long journey. It will possibly take another decade or so to formulate new legal rules and amend existing ones to enable autonomous ships to engage in cross-border commercial operations. However, as Lao Tzu once famously said:

“The journey of a thousand miles begins with one step”.

Please note that smart ships will form part of the discussion in our 14th Annual Colloquium to be held on 10-11 September 2018:

https://www.eventbrite.co.uk/e/new-technologies-and-shippingtrade-law-tickets-46148370017

 

Insurance fraudsters, look out! There are punitives about.

Can an insurer get punitive damages against fraudsters and fraudulent claimants? Until today the matter was doubtful. Although such damages had since Kuddus v Leicestershire Chief Constable [2002] 2 AC 122 been available on principle for all causes of action, they were still subject to Lord Devlin’s other limits in Rookes v Barnard [1964] AC 1129: statute aside, there had to be either public authority wrongdoing or an intent to make gains exceeding any compensation payable. The former was not relevant: as for the latter, even if the fraudster made a gain his liability was not less than but equal to, or — once other heads of damage such as investigation were thrown in — greater than, that gain.

Logical, but from today not correct, courtesy of some slightly tortuous reasoning from the Court of Appeal.

 Axa Insurance UK Plc v Financial Claims Solutions Ltd & Ors [2018] EWCA Civ 1330 (15 June 2018) involved a couple of fraudulent fender-bender-cum-whiplash claims against Axa. Axa, to their credit, smelt a rat. They paid nothing and instead sued the lawyers responsible for making the claims in deceit. In this action they claimed their costs in investigating, and superadded a claim for punitive damages. Reversing the trial judge, the Court of Appeal said they could have the latter, and mulcted each defendant in the sum of £20,000. The requirement for calculation of gains exceeding liabilities was satisfied, it was said, because even if the fraudsters knew they were liable for the full amount of their ill-gotten gains they hoped never in fact to pay; this hope was sufficient to generate the element of hoped-for profit.

The result is welcome, even if the reasoning is a bit surprising. It is also highly significant, since it seems to mean that almost any fraudulent claim against an insurer is now capable of generating a punitive damages liability in the person bringing it if the court thinks fit to exercise its discretion in favour of an award. This presumably includes cases where the fraudster is the claimant himself; although fraudulent claims by policyholders are now dealt with by Part 4 of the Insurance Act 2015, it seems unlikely that this provision was intended to pre-empt the right of the underwriter to sue in tort for deceit if he so wished.

As to when such awards will be made, this is not yet clear. At a guess they are most likely where the whole, or a large proportion, of the claim is bogus: it seems doubtful whether simple exaggeration cases will attract them. But all we can do now is wait and see.

 

We do need a marine insurance drugs clause

Another item for the agenda at the LMA (and elsewhere where they do insurance).  If someone tries to use your ship without your knowledge for drug-smuggling and the vessel gets seized, the Supreme Court has now confirmed in Navigators Insurance Co Ltd & Ors v Atlasnavios-Navegação Lda [2018] UKSC 26 that your insurance may well not respond, with your underwriters politely but regretfully telling you that you are on your own.

While an elderly  bulker, the B Atlantic, was loading a cargo of coal in Maracaibo, Venezuela, enterprising drug smugglers strapped nearly 300 lb of cocaine to her hull with a view to retrieving it later. The drugs were found, and the vessel seized and condemned by the Venezuelan authorities. Her owners’ H&M insurance included the Institute War & Strikes Clause, which gave cover for capture, seizure and arrest; against persons acting maliciously; and against confiscation and expropriation. But specifically excluded under Clause 4.1.5 was detainment, confiscation or expropriation by reason of infringement of customs or trading regulations. The underwriters declined to pay. Flaux J decided for the owners; the smugglers’ acts were those of “persons acting maliciously”, and Clause 4.1.5 did not apply because the substantial cause of their loss was the acts of the smugglers and not the resulting infringement of the Venezuelan customs code. The Court of Appeal disagreed: the exclusion of infringement of customs or trading regulations should not be limited in this way, and in the circumstances excluded liability.

The Supremes, led by Lord Mance, agreed with the Court of Appeal, but went further. Not only did the events fall fair and square within the exclusion of confiscation for breach of customs or trading regulations, but there had been no cover in the first place. “Persons acting maliciously” meant persons deliberately out to injure the interests of the owners. Unlike terrorists, bombers or garden-variety vandals, drug-smugglers did not fall in this category: they were criminals, true, and knew that what they did might have consequences for the owners, but this was not enough.

This is, if one may say so, a sensible and convincing decision on the facts and the wording. But it does leave owners high and dry when faced with a risk against which they can quite legitimately desire protection. A specific clause protecting against seizure for drug-smuggling committed without the knowledge or connivance of the owner or the crew now seems a high priority. As we said, it’s over to you at the LMA.

 

 

Marine Cargo Policies Do Not Normally Provide Cover for Economical Losses

Engelhart CTP (US) LLC v. Lloyd’s Syndicate 1221 for the 2014 year of account [2018] EWHC 900 (Comm)

Having purchased 1,967.898 metric tonnes of cooper ingots, said to be shipped in 102 containers from New York, the buyer (assured) obtained “Marine Cargo and Storage Insurance Policy” from various insurers at Lloyd’s. The insurance policy, inter alia, stated:

“… noted and agreed that unless otherwise declared the contrary, the broadest coverage shall apply.”

“Container Clause

It is agreed that this Insurance contract is also to pay for shortage of contents (meaning thereby the difference between the number of packages as per shippers and/or suppliers invoice and/or packing list loaded or alleged to have been laden in the container and/or trailer and/or vehicle load and the count of packages removed therefrom by the Assured and / or their agent at time of container emptying) notwithstanding that seals may appear intact, and/or any other loss and/or damage including but not limited to cargo and/or container sweat howsoever arising.”

 

“Fraudulent Documents

This insurance contract covers physical loss of or damage to goods and/or merchandise insured hereunder through the acceptance by the Assured and/or Shippers of fraudulent documents of title, including but not limited to Bill(s) of Lading and/or Shipping Receipt(s) and/or Messenger Receipt(s) and/or shipping documents and/or Warehouse Receipts and/or other document(s) of title.

This insurance contract is also to cover physical loss of or damage to goods insured caused by utilisation of legitimate Bill(s) of lading and/or other documents of title without the authorisation and/or consent of the Assured or their Agents and/or Shippers.”

On arrival at Hong Kong for transhipment, it was discovered that no cooper ingots were, in fact, shipped in the containers. Indeed, no such cargo existed and the containers only contained slag of nominal commercial value.

The assured’s claim for indemnity was turned down on various grounds but it was specifically stipulated by Sir Ross Cranston, sitting as a judge of the High Court, that all risk marine cargo insurance was generally construed as covering only losses following from physical loss or damage to goods and this policy as a whole did not displace the presumption against cover for pure economic loss.

The trial judge  dismissed the assured’s contention that the alleged loss fell under the container clause stressing that the term “shortage” in the clause should be given its ordinary meaning and could not cover a situation where there was no goods in the first place. He also emphasised that the “fraudulent documents” clause expressly and exclusively responded to “physical loss of or damage to” goods through the acceptance of dishonest documents so this clause rather than displacing the presumption against cover for pure economic loss in cargo policies endorsed it in the sense that it did expressly indicate that no cover was available for physical losses.

2 points emerge from the judgment:

  1. Considered from the perspective of the construction of contracts, the decision is not at all surprising. It is in line with the spirit of several high profile judgments of the Supreme Court, such as Rainy Sky SA Kookmin Bank [2011] UKSC 50; Arnold v. Britton [2015] UKSC 36 and Impact Funding Solutions Ltd v. Barrington Support Services Ltd [2016] UKSC 57, which emphasise that construing a written document is “first and foremost” a textual exercise. On that premise, a clear and express wording is required to extend the cover of a marine cargo policy to losses which are economic in nature. General statements in the policy purporting to describe the nature of coverage provided in broad terms are not on their own capable of extending the nature of cover beyond physical loss or damage to goods.
  2. It is somehow surprising that the insurers did not develop an alternative defence to the claim by arguing that the policy in this case was void (or did not attach) as the subject matter of insurance has never existed in the first place (see AF Watkinson & Co. Ltd. v. Hullett (1938) 61 L1L Rep 145) In fact, it was argued forcefully in Marine Insurance Fraud, (2014, Informa Law) at 2-117-2-118) that where insurance is obtained for an imaginary cargo, the non-disclosure and misrepresentation is of such magnitude that there is no cover at all.             

Warranty or Not?

Bluebon Ltd (in liquidation) v Ageas (UK) Limited, Aviva Insurance Ltd and another [2017] EWHC 3301 (Comm)

The assured, owners of the Star Garter Hotel at West Lothian, having purchased the property in December 2007, obtained an insurance policy from insurers, Ageas and Aviva, which incepted on 3 December 2009 for a period of 12 months. The insured property suffered loss by fire on 15 October 2010 and a claim was made. The insurers denied liability on the premise that the Electrical Installation Inspection Warranty was breached. The relevant term in the policy was worded as follows:

“It is warranted that the electrical installation be inspected and tested every five years by a contractor approved by the National Inspection Council for Electrical Installation (NICEIC) and that any defects be remedied forthwith in accordance with the Regulations of the Institute of Electrical Engineers.”

On the premise that the last electrical inspection at the Hotel had taken place in September 2003, the insurers argued that the policy was either void or suspended from the outset. In the case, the trial judge, Bryan, J, was required to determine:

  1. The proper construction of the Warranty – was the five-year period to be calculated from the date of the last electrical inspection, or from Policy inception?
  2. Was the Warranty a True Warranty, a Suspensive Warranty, or a Risk Specific Condition Precedent, and what was the consequence of a breach?

The proper construction of the warranty

The assured argued that the five year period should be calculated from the date the policy has been incepted. Taking into account the commercial purpose of the warranty, i.e. ensuring that the risk of fire is minimised (whilst also protecting the health and safety of the insured and the occupiers of the hotel), the judge rejected this contention. This objective can only be achieved if the electrical installation is inspected at regular intervals, e.g. every five years, and any defects identified are remedied. The judge also suggested that the contention of the assured, i.e. the installation inspected every 5 years from the inception of the policy, would make no commercial sense and not work in the context of a one year policy, like this one.

This outcome makes sense and the judgment is in line with recent authorities on the matter such as AC Ward & Son Ltd v. Catlin (Five) Ltd [2009] EWHC 3122 (Comm) and GE Frankona Reinsurance Ltd v. CMM Trust No 1400 (The Newfoundland Explorer) [2006] EWHC 429 (Admlty), analysed by the author in his contribution to the 4th Volume of The Modern Law of Marine Insurance (2016, Informa Law) “New Parameters in Construing Insurance Contracts”

Legal classification of the clause            

The insurers argued that the clause in question was a true warranty and accordingly in this case breach had the effect of rendering the policy void from inception as the warranty related to a period before the attachment of the risk. Alternatively, they argued that the clause was a “suspensive provision” and as the inspection had not been carried out in 2008, the cover was suspended from the outset, i.e. the insurer never came on the risk. Conversely, the assured argued that the clause was a “Risk-Specific Condition Precedent”- i.e. a term which required compliance in respect of risks relating to the electrical installation. Therefore, in case of breach the assured could not recover for liabilities that emerge from risks associated with the electrical installation but cover should be available for liabilities that emerge from other risks.

The assured’s contention was a novel one and essentially based on the premise that a clause could make compliance with a specific aspect of the risk condition precedent to liability. That is certainly possible but clear and apposite language is required to achieve such an outcome. That does not seem to be the case here and the trial judge finding in favour of the insurers expressed the view that the clause was a “suspensory provision”. In reaching this conclusion, he worked on the assumption that the clause was designed to ensure that the assured undertakes such an inspection immediately if there had been no such inspection in the last five years. In other words, he assumed that the intention of the clause was to encourage the assured to get the inspection done as soon as possible by suspending the cover until it is completed. The author is not certain that this was the original intention of the insurers. The insurers in all probability desired to assess the risk accurately at the outset by ensuring that they were insuring a property that had gone through electrical surveys at regular intervals. To the author, it was clear that the clause went to the root of the contract and bore materially on the risk of fire and damages would not have been an adequate remedy (these are all the attributes of a true warranty as highlighted by Rix, LJ in HIH Casualty & General Insurance v New Hampshire Insurance Co [2001] EWCA Civ 735, at [101]). In fact the judge himself appreciated that the term carried all these attributes! It is, therefore, arguable that this was a true warranty.

In the end, the judge’s classification of the clause as a “suspensory provision” had no impact on the outcome. In the present case, the cover was suspended from the outset as the electrical survey had not been concluded 5 years after the previous one by the time the policy had been incepted.

The outcome is in line with the recent trend in the judiciary, i.e. to avoid classifying terms as warranties due to the harshness of the remedy they attract in case of their breach. (see, for example, Sugar Hut Group v. Great Lakes Reinsurance (UK) Plc [2010] EWHC 2636 (Comm)) Of course, had the case been considered under the Insurance Act 2015 a different outcome could have been possible. Under s. 11 of the 2015 Act, the assured could possibly argue that this was a term designed to reduce the risk of a particular type (i.e. fire that is caused by electrical default) and the assured should be able to recover for the loss if he can show that its breach did not increase the risk of the loss which occurred in the circumstances in which it occurred.

It is worth noting that s. 11 is not available in cases where the term in question is designed to define the risk in a general way. The author does not think that the clause in question is of that nature but nevertheless one should be alert to the fact that this kind of disputes could arise under the new Act as s. 11 introduces a type of causation test from the backdoor (even though the Law Commissions were desperate to avoid such an outcome!). (for a more analytical evaluation on s. 11 and the effect of changes on law see- B. Soyer, “Risk Control Clauses in Insurance Law: Law Reform and the Future” (2016) Cambridge Law Journal 109)