Sale of goods — no need to prepare to collect something you know you won’t get

A textbook sale of goods decision today from Carr J in Vitol S.A. v Beta Renowable Group S.A. [2017] EWHC 1734 (Comm), which nevertheless has a few lessons for the rest of us. Beta, a Spanish real estate company that had branched out into the biofuels business, agreed to sell commodity traders Vitol 4,500 tonnes of cooking-oil-derived biodiesel fob Bilbao. Vitol had to have a vessel ready to lift it by midnight Friday 1 July and to nominate the relevant vessel by midnight Monday that week.

Things then went wrong. Communications from Beta culminating on Monday afternoon made it clear there wouldn’t be any biodiesel to lift. Vitol let the nomination time pass without doing anything, said on 7 July that they accepted Beta’s repudiation, and sued for loss of profit (including would-be hedging gains — more anon). Beta declined liability. They argued, with more hope than merit, that Vitol had not accepted their repudiation until much later, and had therefore remained bound to nominate a ship on Monday and take steps for delivery; not having done so, they were (said Beta) disabled from complaining of non-delivery.

Carr J held for Vitol, reasoning thus. First, while one could accept repudiation by mere omission, Vitol had not done so by failure to nominate, since this (non) act had not been unequivocal enough. They had therefore on principle remained bound to take steps to lift the oil. Nevertheless, given that it remained abundantly clear that there was nothing to collect, it would be ridiculous to require them to go to the trouble and expense of making idle preparations to collect it.

It followed that Beta were liable for substantial damages for non-delivery, whereupon a further nice point arose. Spurning traditional value less price as old hat, Vitol sought to claim their lost resale margin, plus in addition an alleged profit they would have made on buying in gasoil futures they had sold in order to hedge the transaction. Carr J was having none of it: there was no reason to allow actual resale profits in an ordinary commodity contract, and the futures were essentially a speculation on Vitol’s own account. So Vitol had to be content with market value damages.

Three points for commodity lawyers and others.

(1) It’s good to have confirmation that to enforce a contract you have generally to show merely that you would have been ready willing and able to satisfy any conditions on your right to performance, but for the other side’s repudiation: you don’t have actually to do an entirely futile act where that would serve no purpose.

(2) Damages: courts remain wary in straightforward commodity cases of departing from the time-honoured  value test in ss.50-51 of the Sale of Goods Act.

(3) Vitol will have been kicking themselves for not making it clear, when not nominating a ship, that they were specifically accepting Beta’s repudiation. One email, of negligible cost, would very likely have saved the cost of having the whole matter taken to the High Court. Solicitors for buyers and sellers, verb. sap.

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