A Euro-spanner in the P&I works: direct actions allowed against insurers in EU courts, and no argument allowed.

UK-based P&I clubs will be hopping mad at the decision of the ECJ today in Assens Havn (Judicial cooperation in civil matters) [2017] EUECJ C-368/16, and will doubtless be joining a number of others in saying that Brexit can’t come soon enough. The problem can be summed up thus: as regards events in the EU the Assens Havn decision has blown out of the water their carefully-crafted provisions aimed at ensuring that all proceedings against them in respect of their members’ liabilities are sorted out in England.

The background (see here in this blog) arose out of events ten years ago in the Danish port of Assens. A Danish tug, entered by bareboat charterers with Navigators Management (UK) Ltd, negligently damaged shore installations. The charterers being insolvent, the port sued Navigators in Denmark under a Danish direct action statute. Navigators relied on the English law and jurisdiction clause in their agreement and insisted on being sued in England. The port relied on Arts 10 and 11 of Brussels I (now Recast 12 and 13, there being no relevant difference), saying that in matters of insurance the club could be sued in Denmark as the place where the damage occurred. Navigators said that Art.13.5 (recast Art.15.5) allowed the relevant jurisdiction to be ousted by agreement, including agreement between the insurer and the insured. It was only fair, they argued, that if the port wanted to use a direct action provision to sue them, the port had to take the insurance contract warts and all. The Danish courts sided with Navigators, but referred the matter to the ECJ.

The ECJ was having none of it. True, the plain words of Art.13.5 said that the provisions of Part 3 of the Regulation could be contracted out of in the case of (inter alia)  marine third-party insurance contracts. True also that the Brussels provisions dealing with direct actions against insurers — Arts.8-10 and 11.2 — indubitably formed part of Part 3. Nevertheless, the Court managed to interpret the Regulation as forbidding any contractual ouster of the direct action provisions. This it did on two grounds. One, flimsy enough, was that the direct action provisions contained no specific saving for Art.13.5. The other was that the victim of an accident always had to be protected in its claims on the basis that it was likely to be the weaker party (!). This can best be described as bizarre: not only is the right of contracting-out under Art.13.5 carefully limited to insurance against solidly commercial risks, but the victims are likely to be substantial businesses or authorities and / or their property insurers, none of which one would have thought deserving of any particular solicitude.

Discounting any entirely unworthy thoughts connected with ideas such as sour grapes and Brexit, one can only speculate that the Court regarded the regime that previously protected P&I clubs as a tiresome anomaly, to be removed almost at any cost. In any case, the position now appears clear. In EU jurisdictions that allow direct actions against insurers, P&I clubs will have to resign themselves to being sued wherever bad things happen. Only in the case of other EU jurisdictions, and outside the EU, where they have in addition the useful weapon of the anti-suit injunction available to them (see here) — can they continue as before and benefit from the savings in costs and trouble of one unique English forum.

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