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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

BPVOY 5 now in force.

BPVOY5 which is designed for use by BP as charterers came into force on 21 March 2016. The main changes from BPVOY 4 are:

  • an onerous compliance clause in cl 2.2 obliging owners to “comply with all applicable requirements stipulated in respect of zones and/or areas regulated by regional and/or national and/or international authorities.”
  • Clause 9 cuts back any safe port warranty by providing “Charterers do not, in any part of this charter or otherwise howsoever, warrant the safety of any port unless Charterers fail to exercise due diligence to ascertain the vessel can lie safely afloat.” The clause also provides that “Where the Vessel has to (a) take additional measures to keep her safely alongside and/or (b) has to move from a particular location within the port, Charterers will reimburse 50% of additional costs directly incurred by the Owners. If the Vessel has to move from a particular location within the port, Charters will reimburse 50% of the cost of bunkers consumed in shifting from that location and back to any other location.”

To the list of scenarios in cl. 11(4) that count as one half laytime or demurrage is added:

“closure of, or any restriction of operation at, any port of terminal by order of any local authority”, and all delays are now qualified so that they only count as half laytime or demurrage if the delay could not have reasonably have been prevented by charterers or owners

  • Under cl.13 ship to ship transfers are now expressly permitted and Charterers are to provide and pay for all necessary equipment and may at their expense engage supervisors to attend on board the vessel, including a mooring master, to assist the STS Operation.
  • A new exception to laytime and demurrage appears in cl. 15(2). If tanks are inspected and rejected, time used for gas-freeing shall not count towards laytime or demurrage, and laytime or demurrage shall not commence or recommence, until such tanks have been re-inspected, approved by Charterers’ inspector, and re-inerted. Charterers shall reimburse Owners for bunkers consumed for gas-freeing/re-inerting.
  • Under cl. 26 charterers are permitted to order the Vessel to discharge and backload a full or part cargo, with freight to be calculated in accordance with Worldscale for the whole voyage, and all time used in backloading to count as laytime or demurrage, with charterers reimbursing additional port costs and bunkers.
  • Clause 27 provides for a virtual arrival scheme whereby charterers may instruct owners to proceed at a set speed, such that the vessel will reach the discharge port at a particular date and time. Extra passage time is to count as laytime and demurrage.
  • Clause  30  allows for electronic Bills of Lading  to be transmitted using the ESS-Databridge, as an eDoc.
  • Clause 31 provides for blending and commingling. Charterers warrant that any cargoes to be blended shall be stable and compatible and no precipitation of solid deposits in cargo tanks, pipes, pumps or valves will occur;

Charterers shall return to Owners for cancellation all three Bills of Lading issued in respect of the cargoes being blended and Owners will issue replacement Bills of Lading stating the place and date that the blending took place and the nature of the original cargo, the original quantity, and the date and place of loading.

Charterers will be deemed to indemnify Owners against any liability, loss, damage of expense arising out of the blending, commingling and additives, but not if the damage or expense could have been avoided by the exercise of due diligence.

Charterers’ liability is limited to no more than twice the CIF value of the cargo at the discharge port on completion of the discharge. Owners have three years from disconnection of the hoses at discharge port within which to issue a written notice of a claim.

Clause 59 allows charterers to carry up to 15 drums of cargo additive. Time used to load or discharge such drums shall count as laytime or demurrage, unless it happens concurrently with loading or discharging of the cargo.

  • Under cl. 42 owners warrant that the vessel is entered in the Tanker Oil Pollution Indemnification Agreement 2006.

Demurrage is not just for ships – and cannot last for ever.

Demurrage is a provision for liquidated damages for breach of the charterer’s obligation to load or discharge the vessel within the agreed laytime. Demurrage provisions are also to be found in carriage contracts in respect of detention of containers supplied by the carrier. In MSC Mediterranean Shipping Company S.A. v. Cottonex Anstalt [2015] EWHC 283 (Comm), we have the first case considering container demurrage, which is of general interest in its treatment of the carrier’s right to keep a repudiated contract alive and continue claiming demurrage.

In the summer of 2011 the carrier made several contracts with the shipper to carry containers of raw cotton by sea from Middle East ports to Chittagong in Bangladesh. However, the goods were never collected and the containers still remain in a yard in the port at Chittagong and the customs authorities have at all material times refused to allow the containers to be released.

The carrier claimed demurrage from the shipper pursuant to cl.14.8 of the bill of lading which provided for a period of free time for the use of containers and providing that the responsibility of the “Merchant”, defined as including the shipper, was “to return to a place nominated by the Carrier the Container and other equipment before or at the end of the free time allowed at the Port of Discharge or the Place of Delivery”. Demurrage on a daily basis was to be payable by the Merchant thereafter in accordance with the carrier’s tariff. As at 1 January 2015 the total demurrage claimed, from the expiry of free time in 2011, exceeded US$1m.

Leggatt J held that the shipper was liable to pay demurrage under cl. 14 (8) and that there was no scope for reducing the amount payable for this breach on the grounds that the carrier had not taken reasonable steps to mitigate its loss. A liquidated damages clause made proof of the claimant’s actual loss unnecessary and irrelevant.

However, demurrage would not run forever. On 27 September 2011 the shipper had committed a repudiatory breach of the contracts of carriage by sending an email to the carrier in which it indicated that there was no realistic prospect of it being to arrange for any of the containers being collected. The question now arose as to whether the carrier should accept the repudiation and sue for damages or whether it could keep the contract alive.

Following a repudiation, the innocent contracting party may decide to keep the contract alive, unless it has no legitimate interest in doing so which will be the case when: (a) damages are an adequate remedy and; (b) maintaining the contract would be “wholly unreasonable”. Here, the carrier had no legitimate interest in maintaining the contract of carriage. It was restricted to a claim for damages, which would be subject to the mitigation principle. If the containers were in its possession it could mitigate by unpacking them. If, as was the case here, the containers were not in its possession, it could mitigate by buying replacements. Had cl. 14 (8) purported to give the carrier an unfettered right to ignore the shipper’s repudiation and carry on claiming demurrage indefinitely, the clause would have been treated as penal and would be unenforceable.