Bulk Carriage: Package limit or no package limit: That is the question.

The decision of the Commercial Court (Sir Jeremy Cooke sitting as a Judge of the High Court) in The Aqasia [2016] EWHC 2514 (Comm); [2016] 2 Lloyd’s Rep. 510 (noted swiftly in this blog; a picture of the vessel in question appears here) has clarified an issue that has been at the heart of cargo claim negotiations for decades, namely whether a carrier of a bulk cargo is entitled to limit his liability under the Hague Rules. Article IV Rule 5 of the Hague Rules provides that: Neither the carrier nor the ship shall in any event be or become liable for any loss or damage to or in connection with goods in an amount exceeding £100 per package or unit”.

Whilst there had hitherto been no English authority directly on point the Commercial Court adopted the approach that has been followed by courts in Commonwealth countries and by textbook commentators and held that the words “package or unit” could not be applied to bulk cargo as they were intended to refer solely to physical packages or other units such as cars. It should be appreciated in this connection that the Hague Rules were adopted in the 1920s at a time when bulk ships were not common. Consequently, it appears that a carrier of a bulk cargo may have no right to package limitation under the Hague Rules.

By the time that the Hague-Visby Rules were adopted at the end of the 1960s, bulk shipments had become common and it was recognised that the Hague Rules wording was no longer fit for purpose. Consequently, Article IV Rule 5 (a) of the Hague-Visby Rules provided that a bulk carrier could limit his liability to “666.67 units of account per package or unit or 2 units of account per kilo of gross weight of the goods lost or damaged, whichever is the higher”. The highlighted words were intended to provide a bulk carrier with limitation rights (i.e. based on weight) that were not available under the Hague Rules.

It should also be appreciated that the version of the Hague Rules that the USA adopted in its Carriage of Goods Act 1936 is also worded differently and provides that a carrier may limit his liability to”$500 per package…or in the case of goods not shipped in packages, per customary freight unit…” The phrase “customary freight unit” has been construed to refer to the unit of measurement that is customarily used to calculate the freight for that particular type of carriage (e.g. so much per ton or US Barrel etc) and not to a physical unit.

Therefore, it is important for a bulk carrier (particularly in high value claims) to determine which version of the Rules is applicable in any particular case. This is also important when the Rules are adopted by means of a Paramount Clause since there are many different types of Paramount Clauses some of which refer to the Hague Rules, some to US COGSA 1936 and some to the Hague-Visby Rules. A reference to the “Vague Rules” could be expensive!

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