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.

Remedies for delivery without production of the bill of lading

A case in the CA of some interest today. Imagine carriers or forwarding agents have delivered goods to a buyer without getting payment for them. No point in suing the buyer in 99% of such cases: and often carriers and forwarding agents will be men of straw too (remember in addition that P&I clubs won’t sub up for this sort of thing). But had you thought of suing the rich man behind the buyer who sweet-talked the forwarding agent or carrier into letting the goods go without payment? You hadn’t? It’s actually a classic case, in most situations, of inducing breach of contract: a point confirmed by the Court of Appeal in Michael Fielding Wolff v Trinity Logistics [2018] EWCA Civ 2765, upholding Sara Cockerill QC at first instance. Happy hunting.

More unwanted cargo.

The Bao Yue [2015] EWHC 2288 (Comm), is another case of nobody wanting to take delivery of the cargo when it gets to its destination. What’s a shipowner to do?

The case involved a shipment of iron ore from Iran to China under a bearer bill of lading. Due to a dispute between the seller and the buyer nobody came forward to take delivery in China and the shipowner arranged for the cargo to be discharged into a warehouse under a contract which gave the warehousekeeper a lien for unpaid storage charges. The shipper, who had retained the original bill of lading, sued the shipowner for conversion, in allowing the creation of a lien over the cargo in favour of a third party, the warehousekeeper, alternatively for denying it access to the cargo.

Both claims failed. The bill of lading expressly provided for the discharge and storage of the cargo and in any event there would have been an implied right on the part of the shipowner to do so if delivery was not taken by the bill of lading holder. It was a foreseeable incident of the right to store the cargo that a lien would be created in favour of the warehousekeeper. The shipper had therefore impliedly authorised the creation of the lien. The Commercial Court also held that there was no denial of access as the shipper could still obtain the cargo by presenting the bill of lading and by paying the storage charges which by now amounted to US$2m.

The shipowner successfully counterclaimed the cost of the storage charges and obtained an order that the shipper deliver an original bill of lading to it to enable it to sell the cargo.

A small footnote. The summary on Westlaw is inaccurate in that it refers to the defendant being the shipper, rather than the shipowner.