OW Bunkers — picking up the pieces

The result of the OW Bunkers litigation in the UK Supreme Court, PST Energy 7 Shipping LLC v OW Bunker Malta Ltd [2016] UKSC 23; [2016] A.C. 1034 (noted here in this blog) is that shipowners having taken bunkers from bankrupt suppliers OW may still potentially face the prospect of being made to pay twice — once to OW because they supplied them, and once to the original sellers to OW because at the relevant time they still owned them. The argument that the original sellers somehow gave up their rights by consenting to onsale by OW is attractive but not cast-iron. The important issue now, however, is how to avoid a similar debacle in the future. Steamship Mutual have advised a change in the terms of contracts. They say: “We recommend Owners review their existing contract wordings to make clear that should their direct counterpart become insolvent, in the bunker supply context or otherwise, that payment to the party down the chain (e.g. the physical supplier) shall be permitted and discharge the debt to the insolvent party.”

With respect, we have some doubts as to whether this will necessarily work. Such an arrangement might well fall foul of the anti-deprivation principle in English insolvency law, which says that where there is an accrued debt owed to an insolvent, any provision depriving the insolvent of the right to collect that debt in the event of subsequent insolvency is presumptively ineffective: see the summary by Lord Collins in Belmont Park Investments Pty Ltd v BNY Corporate Trustee Services Ltd [2011] UKSC 38, [2012] 1 A.C. 383 at [100].

A more effective strategy might be an acknowledgment in the contract of sale that in so far as the bunkers sold are not at the time of delivery owned by the seller, then any right of action is held on trust for the actual owner. Such a provision, not being triggered on insolvency, seems to us more likely to survive scrutiny. But only time will tell.

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