Between discharge and delivery. What is the sea carrier’s responsibility?

What are the responsibilities of an ocean carrier in respect of damage to cargo that is sustained after discharge and before delivery? That was the question at issue in JB Cocoa SDN BHD & Ors v Maersk Line AS (The Maersk Chennai).  [2023] EWHC 2203 (Comm) (05 September 2023).  The vessel carried cocoa beans in containers from Lagos to Tanjung Pelepas, Malaysia. Discharge was on 1 October 2017 but the cargo was not collected until about 28 November 2017 when it was found to be suffering from condensation and mould damage which had occurred during the period between discharge and delivery. JB Cocoa, and their insurers, claimed both as lawful holder and indorsee of the bill of lading, which incorporated the Hague Rules, and also in negligence, in an attempt to claim free of the contractual provisions of the bill of lading.

First, on title to sue , JB Cocoa and their subrogated insurers had title to sue as the lawful holder of the bill of lading under COGSA 1992, but JB Cocoa were not the owner of the goods at the relevant time and could not sue in negligence. Even if they had been able to sue in negligence the claim would fail on the basic principle that there is in general no liability in negligence for omissions and no positive duty to intervene to prevent loss. The claimants did not allege that the defendant did anything to damage the cocoa beans but failed to deliver the cocoa beans in good condition because it left them in their containers and failed to take steps to prevent their deterioration in the containers. The answer to this would be to rely on voluntary assumption of risk in respect of more onerous responsibilities which was not pleaded and could not plausibly have been alleged on any basis other than a bailment subject to the terms of the bill of lading.

On the substantive claim, HH Judge Keyser KC started by reiterating the Court of Appeal’s statements in The Giant Ace [2023] EWCA Civ 569,that the Hague, and Hague-Visby Rules, only operated up to the point of discharge, although the time bar in art III (6) applied to misdelivery claims where delivery had been made after discharge. The carrier’s obligations in respect of the period between discharge and delivery were to be determined by the terms of the bill of lading.

The relevant terms of the bill were contained in clauses 5 and 22.

“5. Carrier’s Responsibility: Ocean Transport

5.1 Where the Carriage is Ocean Transport, the Carrier undertakes to perform and/or in his own name to procure performance of the Carriage from the Port of Loading to the Port of Discharge. The liability of the Carrier for loss of or damage to the Goods occurring between the time of acceptance by the Carrier of custody of the Goods at the Port of Loading and the time of the Carrier tendering the Goods for delivery at the Port of Discharge shall be determined in accordance with Articles 1-8 of the Hague Rules save as is otherwise provided in these Terms and Conditions. These articles of the Hague Rules shall apply as a matter of contract.

5.2 The Carrier shall have no liability whatsoever for any loss or damage to the Goods, howsoever caused, if such loss or damage arises before acceptance by the Carrier of custody of the Goods or after the Carrier tendering the cargo for delivery. Notwithstanding the above, to the extent any applicable compulsory law provides to the contrary, the Carrier shall have the benefit of every right, defence, limitation and liberty in the Hague Rules as applied by clause 5.1 during such additional compulsory period of responsibility, notwithstanding that the loss or damage did not occur at sea.”

“22. Notification, Discharge and Delivery

22.1 Any mention in this bill of lading of parties to be notified of the arrival of the Goods is solely for information of the Carrier. Failure to give such notification shall not involve the Carrier in any liability nor relieve the Merchant of any obligations hereunder.”

HH Judge Keyser KC held that

“The first sentence of clause 5.1, taken together with the definition of “Carriage” in clause 1 but otherwise by itself, would suggest that the carrier is responsible for all handling of the goods and other services provided in respect of the goods at the port of discharge, even if the handling or other services came after discharge. However, the second sentence of clause 5.1 has the effect that the carrier’s liability for loss of or damage to the goods between two points in time—acceptance of custody at the port of loading, and tender for delivery at the port of discharge—shall be determined in accordance with Articles I to VIII of the Hague Rules. The Hague Rules do not regulate the liability of the carrier in respect of any period before loading or after discharge from the vessel; the references in Article II to “custody” and “care” relate to the period prior to discharge: [96]”

Turning to cl.5(2) the first sentence meant that the carrier is liable for loss and damage only within the limits of the Hague Rules, that is, from loading to discharge. Prior to and after those points in time, the goods are at the risk of the shipper or the consignee as the case may be. However, if the temporal delimitation of the carrier’s liability is ineffective in law, the defences, limitations etc. under the Hague Rules will apply to this additional period of liability as they apply to the period governed by the Rules themselves.

HH Judge Keyser KC then rejected the argument that the failure to give notification of arrival under cl. 22(1) amounted to a failure to tender the goods for delivery and rendered the carrier subject to an ongoing obligation to take reasonable care of the goods. The carrier was not obliged to serve an arrival notice at all and therefore such a notice was not an integral part of delivery or of tender of delivery.

If the carrier had remained responsible, HH Judge Keyser KC would have held it liable for the damage to the cocoa beans on the grounds that it failed to take reasonable care of them by opening the container doors to provide ventilation. However, as the carrier was not responsible for the goods after discharge it was under no duty to open the container doors.

So, for owners of containerised goods damaged between discharge and delivery, look closely at the terms of your bill of lading. Terms and conditions apply.

However, a couple of points to bear in mind. An exception against “loss and damage” after discharge won’t protect the carrier against liability for misdelivery East West Corp. v. DKBS 1912 [2003] 1 Lloyd’s Rep 239. Second, where the ocean carrier supplies the container, the start of loading under the Hague Visby Rules can begin earlier than loading onto the vessel. In Volcafe it was the start of stuffing the container at an inland facility. Similarly, ‘discharge’ can be extended to the point of delivery. In Australia in Seafood Imports Pty Ltd v ANL Singapore Pte Ltd [2010] FCA 702 it was held that where a refrigerated container was supplied by the carrier, the duty under the Hague-Visby Rules to discharge the goods properly and carefully extended to ensuring that the refrigerated container in which they had been carried did not have a propensity to become stuck in defrost mode while at the port terminal and before the goods could reasonably be expected to be removed from the container.