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.

Another bad week for Shell. Supreme Court allows Okpabi appeal

Yesterday, the Supreme Court, for whom Lord Hamblen gave judgment, allowed the appeal in the Okpabi Nigerian oil spill case against Shell’s UK parent, Royal Dutch Shell, Okpabi & Ors v Royal Dutch Shell Plc & Anor [2021] UKSC 3 (12 February 2021). This comes shortly after the decision of the Dutch Court of Appeal in parallel proceedings involving oil spills in other parts of Nigeria with claims against Shell’s Dutch parent and its Nigerian subsidiary.

The Supreme Court criticised the approach of both the court at first instance and of the Court of Appeal in allowing what was in effect a mini-trial based on the voluminous evidence before the Court. This was incorrect for interlocutory proceedings. Legally, in the light of the Supreme Court’s decision in Vedanta  which was given after the Court of Appeal’s judgment in Okpabi, various errors of law were apparent in the approach of the majority of the Court of Appeal.

The case made against RDS was that it owed the claimant a common law duty of care because, as pleaded, it exercised significant control over material aspects of SPDC’s operations and/or assumed responsibility for SPDC’s operations, including by the promulgation and imposition of mandatory health, safety and environmental policies, standards and manuals which allegedly failed to protect the appellants against the risk of foreseeable harm arising from SPDC’s operations. The issue of governing law pointed to the application of Nigerian law under the Rome II Regulation and it was agreed that the laws of England and Wales and the law of Nigeria wee materially the same.  The majority of the Court of Appeal (Simon LJ and the Chancellor) held that there was no arguable case that RDS owed the appellants a common law duty of care to protect them against foreseeable harm caused by the operations of SPDC. Sales LJ delivered a dissenting judgment in which he explained why he considered there was a good arguable case that RDS did owe the appellants a duty of care.

The pleaded case and the legal argument in the courts below focused on the then understood threefold test for a duty of care set out in Caparo Industries plc v Dickman [1990] 2 AC 605 and, in particular, whether there was sufficient proximity and whether it would be fair, just and reasonable to impose a duty of care. This was incorrect in the light of this court’s decision in Vedanta, where Lord Briggs had stated [49] “the liability of parent companies in relation to the activities of their subsidiaries is not, of itself, a distinct category of liability in common law negligence”.

The appellants recast their case based on Vedanta with the following four routes:

(1)              RDS taking over the management or joint management of the relevant activity of SPDC;

(2)              RDS providing defective advice and/or promulgating defective group-wide safety/environmental policies which were implemented as of course by SPDC;

(3)              RDS promulgating group-wide safety/environmental policies and taking active steps to ensure their implementation by SPDC, and

(4)              RDS holding out that it exercises a particular degree of supervision and control of SPDC.

Apart from corporate material from the Shell group there was also the evidence of Professor Jordan Siegel who produced an expert report in 2008 in litigation in the United States involving RDS’s immediate predecessors as SPDC’s parent companies. He considered that these documents showed that “The Royal Dutch/Shell Group of Companies tightly controls its Nigerian subsidiary, SPDC. This control comes in the form of monitoring and approving business plans, allocating investment resources, choosing the management, and overseeing how the subsidiary responds to major public affairs issues.” He summarised various corporate documents that post-dated his 2008 report and explains that, “there has been no material change in the senior management of the Shell Group’s ability to tightly control SPDC” since that report. Hes tated that the role of the RDS ExCo is “fundamentally the same” as the predecessor Committee of Managing Directors.

Apart from the error of conducting a mini-trial, there were two other errors of law alleged by the appellants.

The first alleged error is in the Court of Appeal’s analysis of the principles of a parent company’s liability in its consideration of the factors and circumstances which may give rise to a duty of care. The second alleged error is in the court’s overall analytical framework for determining whether a duty of care exists in cases of this type and its reliance on the Caparo threefold test.

The approach of the Court of Appeal had to be considered in the light of the guidance subsequently provided by this court in Vedanta. To the extent that the Court of Appeal indicated that the promulgation by a parent company of group wide policies or standards can never in itself give rise to a duty of care, that was inconsistent with Vedanta.  At para 52 of Vedanta Lord Briggs said that he did not consider that “there is any such reliable limiting principle”. He pointed out that: “Group guidelines … may be shown to contain systemic errors which, when implemented as of course by a particular subsidiary, then cause harm to third parties.” This is what the appellants have described as Vedanta route (2).

Secondly, the majority of the Court of Appeal may be said to have focused inappropriately on the issue of control. Simon LJ appears to have regarded proof of the exercise of control by the parent company as being As Lord Briggs pointed out in Vedanta, it all depends on: “the extent to which, and the way in which, the parent availed itself of the opportunity to take over, intervene in, control, supervise or advise the management of the relevant operations … of the subsidiary.[49]” Control was just a starting point for that question. Lord Hamblen stated:

“The issue is the extent to which the parent did take over or share with the subsidiary the management of the relevant activity (here the pipeline operation). That may or may not be demonstrated by the parent controlling the subsidiary. In a sense, all parents control their subsidiaries. That control gives the parent the opportunity to get involved in management. But control of a company and de facto management of part of its activities are two different things. A subsidiary may maintain de jure control of its activities, but nonetheless delegate de facto management of part of them to emissaries of its parent.” [147]

A specific example of a case in which a duty of care may arise regardless of the exercise of control was provided by what the appellants have described as Vedanta route (4), based on what Lord Briggs stated at para 53:

“… the parent may incur the relevant responsibility to third parties if, in published materials, it holds itself out as exercising that degree of supervision and control of its subsidiaries, even if it does not in fact do so. In such circumstances its very omission may constitute the abdication of a responsibility which it has publicly undertaken.”

The Supreme Court then went on to consider whether these errors were material to the decision of the Court of Appeal.

It held that the case set out in the pleadings, fortified by the points made in reliance upon the RDS Control Framework and the RDS HSSE Control Framework, established that there was a real issue to be tried under Vedanta routes (1) and (3).  It was not necessary to make any ruling in relation to Vedanta routes (2) and (4), and the Court preferred not to do so given that the pleading has not been structured around such a case, although it observed that there was currently no pleaded identification of systemic errors in the RDS policies and standards.

Lord Hamblen concluded [154]:

“Whilst I consider that the appellants’ pleaded case and reliance on the RDS Control Framework and the RDS HSSE Control Framework is sufficient to raise a real issue to be tried, that conclusion is further supported by their witness evidence, as summarised when setting out the appellants’ case above, and, for reasons already given, the very real prospect of relevant disclosure being provided. That prospect is specifically borne out by the evidence of Professor Siegel and the identification of some of the most likely documents of relevance in the Dutch proceedings.”

Prefering, generally, the analysis of Sales LJ  to that of the majority of the Court of Appeal he noted observations of Sales LJ at para 155 that it was significant that the Shell group is organised along Business and Functional lines rather than simply according to corporate status. This vertical structure involves significant delegation

The appellants argued that the Shell group’s vertical organisational structure means that it is comparable to Lord Briggs’ example of group businesses which “are, in management terms, carried on as if they were a single commercial undertaking, with boundaries of legal personality and ownership within the group becoming irrelevant” (para 51).  How this organisational structure worked in practice and the extent to which the delegated authority of RDS, the CEO and the RDS ExCo was involved and exercised in relation to decisions made by SPDC were very much in dispute, as apparent from the witness statements. It wa also an issue in relation to which proper disclosure was of obvious importance. It clearly raised triable issues.

Things don’t go well for Shell. Dutch Court of Appeal finds it liable for pipeline spills in Nigeria

The Dutch Court of Appeal has held that Shell Nigeria is liable for two pipeline spills in Oruma and Goi that took place between 2004-05. Shell had argued that the spills were caused by sabotage, so-called ‘bunkering’. Under Nigerian law, which was applied pursuant to the Rome I Regulation, the company would not be liable if the leaks were the result of sabotage. However, the court said that Shell had not been able fully to prove the causes of the spill. Although the parent company Royal Dutch Shell was not found directly responsible, the court ordered it to install a leak detection system on the Oruma pipeline, the source of several spills in the case – a finding of great interest in the ongoing debate about tort and multi-national companies..

Another case involving pipeline spills in Nigeria, Okpabi v Royal Dutch Shell, came before the UK Supreme Court last June. A previous UK case involving spills in the Bodo area was settled in 2015.

An odd decision over contribution, but no need to worry.

As they used to say as often as they could in the Hitch-Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, “Don’t panic!”

What rules govern contribution proceedings between tortfeasors? In Roberts v SSAFA [2020] EWCA Civ 926 a little boy, presumably a service child, was injured in hospital in Germany owing to SSAFA’s negligence. SSAFA claimed contribution from the MoD, alleging they were concurrently liable. The MoD said, correctly, that German law applied to the contribution proceedings and under German law they were out of time. SSAFA said yes, but then struck a remarkably nationalistic note. The English Civil Liability (Contribution) Act 1978, it argued, ought to apply to all proceedings in the English court even if the liability would otherwise be governed by foreign law: and since that said the claim against the MoD wasn’t statute-barred that was an end of it.

One decision directly in point, Arab Monetary Fund v Hashim [1994] CLY 3555, supported SSAFA; the law professors, by contrast, broadly supported the MoD. The Court of Appeal, after a lengthy analysis of the 1978 Act, came down on the side of SSAFA: on a proper interpretation the Act it, and its scheme of liability, were meant to apply to any proceedings brought here, full stop.

To put things neutrally, this blog would have been with the law professors. The decision will hardly do much for comity; nor does the result make much sense as part of a sensible scheme of private international law, since where it applies it is an open invitation to come and do some socially-distanced forum-shopping in England.

But, as we said at the beginning, don’t panic. The parties’ names in this case might well have been not Roberts and SSAFA but Jarndyce and Jarndyce: the events took place as long ago as 2000 (!). Since 2009 we have had a more sensible rule about contribution in Art.10 of Rome II, which essentially subjects contribution claims to the law governing the main tort. In just about every case you come across these days, barring outliers like this one, it will apply. Whatever else you may think of the EU, Rome I and Rome II are much better provisions than the common law rules they replaced; and even better than that, it seems a racing certainty they will they will continue serenely on post-Brexit. So litigation lawyers can pour that large gin and tonic with a clear conscience this evening.

The Draft Withdrawal Agreement and Shipping Law

 

They came, they argued, they agreed (but now minus Raab and McVey).

This evening the Cabinet signed up to the Draft Withdrawal Agreement, all 586 pages of it – and also the seven page outline of the Political Declaration on the future relationship between the United Kingdom and the European Union.

All eyes are now focussed on the special status of Northern Ireland in the ‘backstop’ in the Agreement and on the inability of the UK unilaterally to withdraw from that agreement in article 21 of the Northern Ireland Protocol.

Less controversial are the provisions of the Agreement on Jurisdiction, Applicable Law, and Insolvency that are to be found in Articles 66 and 67, as follows.

Applicable law.

ARTICLE 66

Applicable law in contractual and non-contractual matters

In the United Kingdom, the following acts shall apply as follows:

(a) Regulation (EC) No 593/2008 of the European Parliament and of the Council shall apply in respect of contracts concluded before the end of the transition period;

(b) Regulation (EC) No 864/2007 of the European Parliament and of the Council shall apply in respect of events giving rise to damage, where such events occurred before the end of the transition period.

Jurisdiction.

ARTICLE 67

Jurisdiction, recognition and enforcement of judicial decisions, and related cooperation between central authorities

  1. In the United Kingdom, as well as in the Member States in situations involving the United Kingdom, in respect of legal proceedings instituted before the end of the transition period and in respect of proceedings or actions that are related to such legal proceedings pursuant to Articles 29, 30 and 31 of Regulation (EU) No 1215/2012 of the European Parliament …the following acts or provisions shall apply:

(a) the provisions regarding jurisdiction of Regulation (EU) No 1215/2012

Insolvency

Article 67

  1. In the United Kingdom, as well as in the Member States in situations involving the United Kingdom, the following provisions shall apply as follows:

(c) Regulation (EU) 2015/848 of the European Parliament and of the Council shall apply to insolvency proceedings, and actions referred to in Article 6(1) of that Regulation, provided that the main proceedings were opened before the end of the transition period;

For financial service providers, the following statement on p2 of the Political Declaration is of interest.

 

“Commencement    of    equivalence    assessments    by    both    Parties    as    soon    as    possible    after    the    United     Kingdom’s     withdrawal     from     the     Union, endeavouring     to     conclude     these     assessments     before the    end    of    June 2020.”

.

Back to the common law. Jurisdiction and judgments if there’s a ‘no deal’ Brexit.

 

 

On 13 Sept 2018 the UK government stated that in the event of a no-deal Brexit, it would repeal most of the existing civil judicial cooperation rules and instead use the domestic rules which each UK legal system currently applies in relation to non-EU countries. This is due to the lack of reciprocity from EU Member States that would pertain after ‘exit day’.

So, for the bin, would be:

The 2012 Brussels Regulation (Recast). Back to common law. The return of the anti-suit injunction to protect London arbitration agreements from suits commenced in EU states.

The Enforcement Order, Order for Payment and Small Claims Regulations: which establish EU procedures for dealing with, respectively, uncontested debts and claims worth less than EUR5,000

The EU/Denmark Agreement: which provides rules to decide where a case would be heard when it raises cross-border issues between Denmark and EU countries, and the recognition and enforcement of civil and commercial judgments between the EU and Denmark

The Lugano Convention: which is the basis of our civil judicial relationship with Norway, Iceland and Switzerland.

Most of the Insolvency Regulation, which covers the jurisdictional rules, applicable law and recognition of cross-border insolvency proceedings, although the EU rules that provide for the UK courts to have jurisdiction where a company or individual is based in the UK will be retained.

In addition, last year shipping minister John Hayes told members of the UK Major Ports Group that the hated 2017 Port Services Regulation will be “consigned to the dustbin” in the UK due to Brexit.

 

Staying out of the bin will be Rome I and Rome II on choice of law in contract and non-contractual matters. No reciprocity is involved with these regulations.

The Government intends the UK to accede to the 2005 Hague Convention on Choice of Court Agreements in its own right and anticipates that the convention would come into force across the UK by 1 April 2019. This is somewhat of a surprise as article 31 (a) provides the convention to come into effect for each state ratifying it on the first day of the month following the expiration of three months after the deposit of its instrument of ratification, acceptance, approval or accession. So, 1 July 2019.

The Convention does not apply to: consumer or employment contracts; insolvency; carriage of passengers or goods; maritime pollution; anti-trust/competition; rights in rem in immovable property, and tenancies of immovable property; the validity, nullity or dissolution of legal persons, and the validity of decisions of their organs; various matters concerning the validity or infringement of intellectual property rights; the validity of entries in public registers; arbitration and related proceedings

 

 

 

Shipping Law and ‘that referendum’. Part Two. Regulations.

With the repeal of the European Communities Act 1972, EU Regulations will cease to be part of UK law. There are three important Regulations of concern to shipping practitioners.

  1. The Brussels Recast Judgment Regulation 1215/2012
  2. The Rome I Regulation on choice of law for contracts
  3. The Rome II Regulation on choice of law i in non contractual matters.

If these are not re-implemented into domestic law, then this we are back to the common law as regards jurisdiction.  When suing a defendant domiciled in the UK it would once again become possible to seek to stay proceedings on grounds of forum non conveniens.

As regards choice of law, we would be back  to the Contracts (Applicable Law) Act 1990 whose provisions are quite similar to those in Rome I. For tort it would be back to the Private International Law (Miscellaneous Provisions Act) 1995 whose provisions contain significant differences from Rome II.

If losing the three Regulations is regarded as non conveniens then Parliament needs to re-enact them into domestic law. Rome I and Rome II could be re-enacted without the need for any action from the remaining 27 EU Member States, although Parliament may choose to amend parts of the Regulations. Possible candidates for amendment of Rome II would be:(a) clarification that it does not apply to torts on the High Seas and; (b)  providing that the applicable  law  where limitation proceedings are brought before the courts of the UK is that of the UK.  Some thought would have to be given as to whether the ECJ should be treated as having any authority as regards interpretation of the domestic legislation which re-enacts the two Regulations.

With the Brussels Recast Judgment Regulation the position is more complex if it is thought to be desirable to maintain a common jurisdiction framework with the remaining EU  Member States. They would need to amend the Regulation to include the UK, perhaps with a simple definition clause ‘Member state includes the United Kingdom’ and similar amendment, mutatis mutandis, with references to a ‘non-Member State’. The UK would also  have to agree to  the authority of the ECJ as regards the domestic legislation reimplementing the Regulation.

An alternative would be for the UK to ratify the 2007 Lugano Convention which tracks the provisions of the 2001 Brussels Regulation  (the ‘unrecast’ version). However, this would require the UK first to become a member of the European Free Trade Associaton, or to obtain the agreement of all the Contracting Parties, the European Community and Denmark, Iceland, Norway and Switzerland.

The UK could also ratify the  Hague Convention on Choice of Court Agreements 2005 (Hague Convention), which came into force as between the Member States and Mexico on 1 October 2015 ( for intra EU matters the Recast Regulation prevails).  The Convention deals with exclusive jurisdiction clauses in favour of a Contracting State and for recognising and enforcing judgments within Contracting States in respect of contracts with such clauses.

In our next blog I shall address some of the shipping related Directives that will cease to have effect following repeal of the European Communities Act 1972.