P&I clubs already have their issues with the EU, as regards (for instance) Solvency II: see our post here. Now another cloud looms. P&I clubs based in the UK jealously guard their English law and jurisdiction clauses. But where a direct action is brought in an EU state, is the jurisdiction clause compatible with EU law?
The point has arisen in Denmark and is headed for the ECJ. A Danish tug, entered with Navigators Management (UK) Ltd, caused mayhem in the Danish port of Assens. The tug’s bareboat charterers being insolvent, the port sued Navigators in Denmark under the Danish direct action statute: Navigators relied on the English law and jurisdiction clause and insisted on being sued in England. The port relied on Arts 10 and 11 of Brussels I (equivalent to Recast 12 and 13, there being no relevant difference between the two here), saying that in matters of insurance the club could be sued in Denmark as the place where the damage occurred. Navigators said that Art.13 (recast Art.15) allowed the relevant jurisdiction to be ousted by agreement. The port retorted that this was all very well, but a term in the contract between the charterers and the club could not in the nature of things be binding on it as a third party. Whereupon the club riposted that if the port wanted the advantage of the contract between it and the charterers then the port had to take that contract warts (i.e. jurisdiction clause) and all.
At this stage it’s not clear why the port wanted so much to sue in Denmark. We can only presume that, despite the cover being written under English law, Danish law would apply to the exclusion of English law to at least some aspects of the direct claim and deprive the club of some advantage or defence otherwise available.
What the ECJ will hold is anyone’s guess. One hopes it will side with the insurer: one way P&I clubs keep costs down and liabilities in check is to avoid entanglements with foreign law as far as possible, and keep in reserve the possibility of insisting on “pay to be paid” provisions — something many EU jurisdictions take a poor view of. There’s certainly some logic on that side. In particular, the right under Art.13 to exclude jurisdiction is specifically stated not to apply to direct personal injury claims against liability insurers: something that seems to suggest that but third party direct claims in general can be excluded. On the other hand, logic (if one may say so) has not always been the ECJ’s strong suit when the court has been presented with the opportunity to extend EU control over commercial activities.
If the decision goes against Navigators, we may see yet another item added to the already long UK Brexit wish-list.