“But you weren’t going to perform anyway!”: A new hurdle when invoking Force Majeure

Classic Maritime Inc v Limbungan Makmur SDN BHD [2019] EWCA Civ 1102

Simon Rainey QC and Andrew Leung

Is it necessary when a party seeks to rely on a force majeure or exceptions clause to show that it would have performed “but for” the force majeure or excepted event? And if the party is liable for failing to perform, but performance would have been impossible in any event, is the innocent party entitled to damages?

These important questions were considered by the Court of Appeal in Classic Maritime Inc v Limbungan Makmur SDN BHD [2019] EWCA Civ 1102. The judgment, which is the sequel to the first instance decision discussed here, clarifies that:

  1. Contrary to what textbooks such as Chitty and Treitel on Frustration and Force Majeure suggest, there is no general principle that it is not necessary to show “but for” causation in order to invoke a force majeure or exceptions clause.
  • The innocent party is entitled to substantial damages even if it would never have received performance in any event.

The dam burst and the COA

The litigation was fuelled by the Samarco dam burst on 5 November 2015. The charterer under a COA, Limbungan, claimed it was prevented from supplying cargoes for shipment as a result and was excused from having to perform under Clause 32 of the COA, which provided in material part:

“Neither the Vessel, her Master or Owners, nor the Charterers, Shippers or Receivers shall be responsible for…failure to supply, load…cargo resulting from: Act of God…floods…landslips…accidents at mine or production facility…or any other causes beyond the Owners’, Charterers’, Shippers’ or Receivers’ control; always provided that such events directly affect the performance of either party under this Charter Party.”

The first instance decision

At first instance, Teare J held that though the dam burst had rendered performance impossible, Limbungan could not rely on Clause 32 as it required the charterer to prove that it would have performed but for the collapse of the dam, and Limbungan would have defaulted anyway. However, the owner, Classic, was only entitled to nominal damages. Even if Limbungan had been able and willing to perform, the dam burst would inevitably have prevented performance. The compensatory principle would be breached if Classic was awarded substantial damages when it would never have received freight in any event.

The Court of Appeal’s decision

The Court of Appeal upheld Teare J’s decision that Clause 32 required Limbungan to prove but for causation and reversed his decision in relation to damages.

Limbungan had submitted that the House of Lords decision in Bremer Handelgesellschaft v Vanden Avenne-Izegem PVBA [1978] 2 Lloyd’s Rep 109 laid down the general principle that a party relying on force majeure need not show it would have performed but for the force majeure event.

However, the Court of Appeal, like Teare J, treated Bremer v Vanden as a case concerning a “contractual frustration” clause (Clause 21 of the GAFTA 100 form), i.e. a clause which automatically discharged the parties from an obligation to perform in the future, much like the common law doctrine of frustration. The automatic cancellation effected by Clause 21 meant it was not necessary to meet the test of but for causation.

Starting from first principles, it was open to the parties to agree a clause which only excused non-performance if that test was met. The Court of Appeal considered that Clause 32 was just such a clause. Unlike the “contractual frustration” clause in Bremer v Vanden, it was an exemption clause which relieved a party of liability for a past breach. It was hard to see why the dam burst should make any difference to Limbungan’s liability when it was never going to perform anyway.

On the issue of damages, what Teare J thought was an orthodox application of the compensatory principle the Court of Appeal viewed as a “sleight of hand”. When assessing Classic’s loss, the Judge should have compared the freights Classic would have earned with the actual position it was in due to Limbungan’s breach. Teare J had instead drawn a comparison between Classic’s actual position and its position if Limbungan had been ready and willing to perform.

The Court of Appeal distinguished the present case from two cases in which events occurring after a breach of contract were taken into account:

  1. In The Golden Victory [2007] 2 A.C. 353, the House of Lords held that the owners could not recover hire for the full-term of a charterparty prematurely cancelled by the charterers. The charterparty would not have run its full course anyway as the charterers would have lawfully cancelled due to the Second Gulf War.
  • In Bunge v Nidera [2015] 3 All E.R. 1082, the Supreme Court held that a buyer had suffered no loss despite the repudiation of a sale contract by the seller. A subsequent embargo would however have prevented the sale from taking place in any event.

Both cases were however concerned with assessing damages for an anticipatory breach. Contrastingly, the present case was concerned with an actual breach. Since Clause 32 gave Limbungan no defence to liability, Limbungan had to pay damages for failing to perform.

Comment

The Court of Appeal has underlined the fact that, whatever the current understanding of Bremer v Vanden in the textbooks,there is no default position whereby it is unnecessary to prove but for causation in order to rely on a force majeure or exceptions clause. The specific Force Majeure remedy afforded by Clause 21 of GAFTA 100 was held to be the reason that clause did not import a requirement of but for causation. Why this remedy should determine the test for causation is not entirely clear, when the effect of contractual cancellation and an exemption from liability is for practical purposes the same: the non-performing party cannot be successfully sued.

In other respects, this case presents a number of novelties:

  1. The Court of Appeal held that Clause 32 was not even a force majeure clause, but an exemption clause. It was not previously clear that these categories were mutually exclusive (see e.g. Lewison, Interpretation of Contracts, 13.02).
  • Both Treitel and Lewison suggest in the light of the authorities that a clause which makes provision for the consequences of supervening events which occur without the fault of either party and are beyond their control (i.e. Clause 32) defines the parties’ obligations rather than operating as an exemption clause. This now needs to be reconsidered.
  • The Court of Appeal’s take on The Golden Victory and Bunge v Nidera is that subsequent events and their potential effect on the parties’ rights and obligations are only relevant when assessing damages caused by an anticipatory breach accepted as terminating the contract. They are not relevant in the case of an actual breach. This is arguably a new development and suggests there is not one compensatory principle, but two.

Permission to appeal was refused by the Court of Appeal but an application for permission to appeal is being made to the Supreme Court. The authors are Counsel for Limbungan and appeared below and in the Court of Appeal.

Force Majeure, Alternative Modes of Performance and “Eggs in one Basket” – Simon Rainey QC and Andrew Leung

Classic Maritime v Limbungan Makmur SDN BHD [2018] EWHC 2389 (Comm)

Introduction

A contract contains two modes of performance, A or B. Historically, the obligor has used mode A which becomes unavailable due to a natural disaster. If the obligor can show that it is also impossible to use mode B for reasons beyond its control, can it rely on a force majeure provision to excuse non-performance? Does it need to show it would have performed using mode A but for the mode A-disabling event? Classic Maritime v Limbungan Makmur SDN BHD [2018] EWHC 2389 (Comm) addresses these questions and others in an area of law that is perhaps not as well-settled in all respects as some might think.

Simon Rainey QC, leading Andrew Leung, represented the successful Defendants, instructed by Julian Clark, Winnie Mah and Trudie Protopapas at Hill Dickinson LLP. 

The dam burst and the COA

At 3.45pm on 5 November 2015, the worst environmental disaster in Brazilian history unfolded. A tailings dam operated by Brazilian mining company Samarco Mineracao SA (“Samarco”) collapsed. A tidal wave of 32 to 40 million cubic metres of mining waste swept across green valleys, villages and farmland.

Iron ore production at Samarco’s mine was brought to an abrupt halt. Shipments of Samarco’s iron ore pellets, hitherto shipped through Ponta Ubu in Brazil, were suspended.

Ponta Ubu was one of two ports from which the charterers, Limbungan Makmur SDN BHD (“Limbungan”), had the option to load iron ore pellets on the vessels of Classic Maritime Inc., under a COA for 59 shipments of iron ore pellets from Brazil to Malaysia between 2009 and 2017. The other load port was Tubarao, from which another Brazilian mining company, Vale SA (“Vale”), shipped iron ore pellets.

The parties’ rival positions

In the Samarco aftershock, it was Limbungan’s case that Vale experienced a surge in demand, earmarked its supply to existing customers, and left newcomers such as itself wanting. Limbungan was therefore prevented from shipping from Ponta Ubu and Tubarao due to circumstances beyond its control. This excused its failure to perform post-5 November 2015 under Clause 32 of the COA, a fairly typical force majeure or exceptions clause, which stated inter alia:

“Neither the Vessel, her Master or Owners, nor the Charterers, Shippers or Receivers shall be responsible for…failure to supply, load…cargo resulting from: Act of God…floods…landslips…accidents at mine or production facility…or any other causes beyond the Owners’, Charterers’, Shippers’ or Receivers’ control; always provided that such events directly affect the performance of either party under this Charter Party.”

Classic countered that Limbungan had an absolute and non-delegable obligation to provide cargo and had no arrangements to do so. Instead, it hoped to perform with the gratuitous support of two companies within the same broad corporate family, Lion DRI or Antara. Those companies had asked Limbungan to ship their iron ore pellets to their steel-making plants in Malaysia from Ponta Ubu since 2011, but without any contractual nexus existing between them. The bursting of the dam was thus of no legal relevance. The problem was that the now sole supplier, Vale, would not supply Limbungan or its affiliates, although matters would have been different if Limbungan had made proper efforts and pushed for a long-term supply contract.

What is more, Classic argued that Limbungan would not have performed anyway. It had failed to perform two pre-dam burst shipments as Lion DRI and Antara had not required Limbungan to carry iron ore pellets in a weak market, a state of affairs which would have continued irrespective of the dam burst. The dam burst was not a force majeure event and Classic was entitled to US$20.5 million in damages to compensate it for lost freight.

Against this, Limbungan argued that it had put its eggs in the Samarco/Ponta Ubu basket as it had exclusively shipped Samarco pellets since August 2011. Whether it had enforceable agreements with Samarco, Lion DRI or Antara was not determinative; its settled practice was clear. The obligation after the dam burst was to make new arrangements ex Tubarao, provided it was possible to do so. Clause 32 applied because it was not possible. This was an alternative modes of performance case per Warinco v Mauthner [1978] 2 Lloyd’s Rep 151, 154 in that Limbungan had opted for one mode of performance which had become unavailable. As it could not avail itself of the one remaining mode, it was excused.

Further, it was sufficient that Limbungan was prevented from performing by the dam burst. It was contrary to authority to insist that Limbungan had to show it would have performed had the dam not burst and contrary to the compensatory principle to award damages to Classic in respect of shipments which would never have occurred given the dam burst.

The judgment of Teare J.

The Court rejected Classic’s claim, and in the process made findings of wider legal significance.

  1. First, Classic’s reliance on the principle that a charterer who has been let down by a particular supplier cannot plead force majeure per The Mary Nour [2008] 2 Lloyd’s Rep and The Kriti Rex [1996] Lloyd’s Rep 171 was not on point. Those cases were not concerned with alternative modes of performance, where the required performance was from Port A or Port B, but with performance from a single port (albeit one possibly served by many suppliers).
  2. Second, for the alternative modes of performance principle to apply, it was not necessary for Limbungan to show it had legally binding arrangements to perform from Pontu Ubu rather than Tubarao when the dam burst. What the Court had to assess were Limbungan’s “intentions or arrangements” per Moccatta J in European Grain & Shipping v J.H. Rayner [1970] 2 Lloyd’s Rep. 239, which did not need to display the element of fixity posited by Classic.   
  3. Third, Limbungan had to show that it would have performed but for the dam burst. The House of Lords decision in Bremer Handelgesellschaft v Vanden Avenne-Izegem PVBA [1978] 2 Lloyd’s Rep 109 and a string of other cases, which Limbungan said supported the general proposition that a party relying on force majeure need not show it would have performed but for the force majeure event were, in Teare J’s judgment, cases about contractual frustration provisions, which are intended to mimic the effect of common law frustration. They had no bearing on Clause 32.
  4. Fourth, the Court concluded that neither Limbungan nor its affiliates could have sourced cargoes from Vale ex Tubarao – a topic on which the parties’ market experts spilt much ink. That said, Limbungan could not show it would have performed but for the dam burst: Lion DRI’s steel-making business had effectively been mothballed due to weak demand, Antara had a cheaper COA of its own, and the arrangement whereby Antara had used the more expensive COA and been compensated for the freight differential by Lion DRI was moribund. 
  5. Fifth, though Limbungan could not rely on Clause 32 and was therefore liable under Clause 32, Classic was not entitled to recover damages. This was because even if Limbungan had been able and willing to perform, the dam burst would have supervened and prevented performance, and Limbungan would have been excused by Clause 32. It would violate the compensatory principle, to award substantial damages to Classic when it would never have received performance in any event.
  6. Sixth, the Court rejected Classic’s case to the effect that if the dam burst was due to faulty construction or maintenance by Samarco, it was an event within the “Shipper’s [i.e. Samarco’s] control”, and thus not within Clause 32. No part of the charterers’ obligation to supply and load cargo extended to responsibility for the dam, making it unlikely the parties intended  poor dam construction or maintenance (if proved) to debar Limbungan from relying on Clause 32. This is an important decision on the typical ‘beyond the control of’ provision, analysed in the sometimes misunderstood decision in The Crude Sky [2013] EWCA Civ 905.

Conclusions

The case is believed to be the first authority since the Bremer line of authorities from the 1970s and early 1980s to consider whether the party relying on a force majeure or exceptions clause has also to show it would have performed but for the event relied upon to be excused from non-performance. The answer given in those cases was “no”. For the time being, the textbooks may need to be rewritten to reflect the affirmative answer to this question given by Teare J.

This gives pause for thought. Had Ponta Ubu and Tubarao both been wiped out by a meteor, so that any performance was unquestionably prevented, on one view, asking whether Limbungan could or wanted to perform would be academic. It might be said the parties intended Clause 32 to excuse Limbungan from liability in precisely such a case, particularly since Clause 32 is intended to deal with frustrating and force majeure events, and in the context of frustration, but for causation has always been irrelevant. Not only that: asking whether Limbungan would have performed but for the dam burst is conducive to a doubtful and speculative examination of what Limbungan’s intentions and arrangements would have been in a counter-factual setting, which Megaw LJ Bremer Handelgesellschaft v Vanden Avenne-Izegem PVBA [1977] 2 Lloyd’s Rep 329 cautioned against.

This also appears to be the first case where the argument has been made (by Classic) – and rejected – that the arrangements necessary to activate the alternative modes of performance principle need to be legally binding. They do not: the arrangements can have a looser, more informal character.

Finally, this case exemplifies the compensatory principle at work: if Limbungan had performed instead of breaching the COA, it would have performed with Samarco out of Ponta Ubu. The problem from Classic’s perspective is that with the intervention of the dam burst, Limbungan would have been able to claim force majeure under Clause 32 (as on this hypothesis it would have performed but for the dam burst). The outcome in both the breach and non-breach positions is therefore that Classic would not have enjoyed the benefit of contractual performance. Classic cannot be put in a better position than if the breach had not occurred.

Teare J refused permission to appeal on the ground that Classic’s proposed appeal on the application of the compensatory principle (or perhaps more accurately Classic’s case that the principle allowed it to recover substantial damages to represent loss of charter freights which in fact it could never have earned assuming Limbungan performed rather than breached the COA) had no realistic prospect of success.

A copy of the Judgment, can be found here