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.

Anticipatory breach and sale of blended cargo.

 

A victory for IISTL Member, Simon Rainey QC, leading counsel for the seller in Mena Energy DMCC v Hascol Petroleum Ltd. [2017] EWHC 262 (Comm). Disputes arose out of two sales, one of fuel oil, the other of gasoil, to an importer in Pakistan. The first shipment was of fuel oil  with a maximum  viscosity of 125 centistokes. The shipment required blending on the voyage to reduce its viscosity. On arrival at Karachi import was not permitted following sampling of the vessel’s tanks which showed that the cargo had a viscosity of 192.92 centistokes. The parties then agreed by telephone that the vessel would return to Fujairah where the cargo would be reloaded following further blending and would then return to Karachi. The buyer claimed that no final settlement had been reached but that the parties had merely agreed that if the vessel returned to Karachi by 26 November the existing bills of lading would continue to be used for calculating the price, but if it did not return by then the parties would revert to their rights under the original contract. The vessel returned to Karachi on 30 November and the buyer claimed damages for delay. The court held that the telephone agreement constituted a final settlement of all claims and counterclaims up to that point and that the seller merely undertook to use its best endeavours to ensure the vessel’s return to Karachi by 26 November. Even if the buyers were correct, the evidence showed that the cargo was in fact on spec at the time of the initial arrival at Karachi. The spot samples were drawn before any recirculation of the cargo had taken place. Running samples were more accurate than spot samples and hatch samples more accurate than samples drawn through the vessel’s closed sampling system.

 

With the second shipment, the buyers were obliged to open a letter of credit by 3 December and had failed to so. The previous day the sellers, seeing that it was clear that the buyers would fail to open the credit on time, cancelled the charterparty they had concluded for shipment. The court held that the obligation to open the credit did not depend on the existence of a charterparty, and that after 3 December, the buyer’s anticipatory breach became an actual breach for which the sellers were entitled to claim damages. In any event, the opening of a credit was a condition precedent to the seller’s obligation to supply the goods and there could be no question of the seller being in breach for failing to deliver cargo in circumstances where no letter of credit had been opened.

Shipbuilding options – worth the paper they’re written on?

Shipbuilding contracts often contain an element of “buy one, get a special offer on another”. In other words, an order for one vessel may well give the buyer an option on one or more further ships to be built at a later date. Unfortunately option provisions of this kind, can be of doubtful value, as Teekay Tankers found to its cost this week. As part of an order for four vessels from Korean builders STX, the parties included a clause aimed at giving an option on a further dozen vessels as follows:

“The Delivery Dates for each [of the] Optional Vessels shall be mutually agreed upon at the time of [Teekay’s] declaration of the relevant option … but [STX] will make best efforts to have a delivery within 2016 for each [of the] First Optional Vessels, within 2017 for each [of the] Second Optional Vessels and within 2017 for each [of the] Third Optional Vessels.”

STX went into Korean-style Chapter 11 bankruptcy, failed to build the original four ships and unsurprisingly repudiated the extra options. For the purpose of establishing its rights in the Korean administration (since recognised in England under the Model Law on Cross-border Insolvency), Teekay with the court’s permission got an arbitration award in respect of the original vessels, and in Teekay Tankers Ltd v STX Offshore & Shipbuilding Co Ltd [2017] EWHC 253 (Comm) sued for damages for the repudiation of the options. It failed in the latter.  Although it was clear that both parties had intended the option provision to have legal effect, and also that the courts disliked striking down a clause for uncertainty, this was simply too vague, since there was no way of establishing what criteria were to apply if Teekay gave notice to exercise the options and the parties could not agree dates. Cutting through a lot of verbiage, the conclusion appears to be simply this: to be sure of being able to enforce options of this kind, there is little alternative to providing for some kind of arbitration or third-party decision to be binding in the absence of some other agreement. Unpalatable, to be sure, especially to the yards, which need to maintain flexibility: but there seems little choice in the matter.

 

 

Claims against shipowners by physical bunker suppliers. News from Malaysia.

A familiar claim, this time in Malaysia, by Vitol, the physical bunker supplier, in respect of bunkers supplied to a vessel by OW Bunkers. Vitol sent the shipowners a notice stipulating that it had exercised a lien over the bunkers, and that it should pay the supplier and not OWB. The vessel was later arrested in Malaysia and in Vitol’s  application to amend its pleadings the Kuala Lumpur High Court in Vitol Asia PTE LTD v The Owners of the Ship or Vessel Malik Al Ashtar considered the following issues.

  1. Was OWB contracting on behalf of the owners when it entered into the contract with the Vitol for the sale of the bunkers? The court found that there was no no document conferring actual authority on OWB to contract on behalf of the defendants, nor were there any representations by the shipowners that OWB had actual or apparent authority to enter into any agreements on its behalf.
  1. Were the shipowners liable in conversion? No. The court adopted the views of Males J in The Res Cogitans [2015] EWHC 2022  that despite a clause such as cl. 11.2, there would be no claim for conversion against the shipowner as the physical supplier had consented to the use of the bunkers by the vessel. Here, Vitol knew that OWB was a trader and not an end user and that it would sub-contract with shipowners to whom the bunkers would be delivered.
  1. Was there a claim in unjust enrichment? No, Vitol’s sales order confirmation and tax invoice evidenced its intention to contract directly with OWB only, and it should look solely to OWB for payment under its contract with it.
  1. Was there a direct contract whereby the shipowners would be jointly liable pursuant to Clause L4 of OWB’s general trading terms? No. There was no evidence that the shipowners had agreed to be bound by Vitol’s terms when they entered into a direct contract for supply of the bunkers with OWB. Nor had they agreed or authorised OWB to be bound by the Vitol’s terms when OWB contracted with Vitol for the supply of those bunkers. The Canadian decision in Canpotex Shipping Services Ltd v Marine Petrobulk [2015] FC 1108 on which Vitol relied did not reflect the English position and was not binding on the Malaysian courts.
  1. Was there a lien over the vessel or the bunkers? No. There was no contract between Vitol and the shipowners so no contractual lien could arise. If there were such a lien, it would give no right to payment as against the shipowner but would only give a right to retain possession of the bunkers until payment by OWB. There was no maritime lien in respect of the supply of bunkers under either English or Malaysian law.

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.

The meaning of “consequential damages” – as always, it depends on the context

Further evidence that English courts are taking a thoroughly pragmatic line with commercial exemption clauses comes from Sir Jeremy Cooke’s decision a few days ago in the shipbuilding case of Star Polaris LLC v HHIC-PHIL Inc [2016] EWHC 2941 (Comm). A new-built vessel still under guarantee suffered engine failure, found to be partly due to construction defects which were the yard’s responsibility. In the light of this finding the yard’s liability for the cost of rectification was not in issue, this being expressly allowed under the terms of its builder’s guarantee. What was disputed was a further claim by the buyers for a residual diminution in value of the vessel allegedly caused by the construction problems. The building was under the venerable SAJ form, which had it been left unaltered would under Art.IX have answered the question unequivocally in the yard’s favour (“The guarantee contained as hereinabove … replaces and excludes any other liability, guarantee, warranty and/or condition imposed or implied by the law …”). But, for reasons unclear, this clause did not appear. The yard, therefore, was thrown back on another provision in Art.IX, excluding liability for “consequential or special losses, damages or expenses”. The yard said that the alleged diminution in value was clearly consequential on the damage directly suffered and was therefore still excluded.

The buyers riposted with a mention of a number of other cases in a non-shipbuilding context, which had construed references to consequential losses as covering merely damages not immediately foreseeable and thus outside the first limb of Hadley v Baxendale (1854) 9 Ex 341. Since in the present case diminution in value had been eminently foreseeable (their argument went), it followed that there was no objection to the present claim.

The arbitrators were not impressed, and neither was the judge. Even with the stripped-down version of the SAJ that the parties had chosen to use, and even accepting the potential applicability of the contra proferentem rule in the context of commercial contracts, the context of the contract made it clear that the guarantee provision was intended to provide a complete code for the determination of the parties’ rights and liabilities, and thus that any further liabilities were to be excluded. And quite rightly too, in our respectful submission. The intention evident in a contract as a whole, rather than any minute interpretation of the words the parties chose to include or exclude, still less any mechanical exercise in substitution of words, ought to govern where interpretation is in issue.

Of Default Gas and Freedom of Contract

It’s a good day for freedom of contract as Christopher Clarke LJ handed down his judgment for Scottish Power UK Plc v BP Exploration Operating Company Ltd & Ors [2016] EWCA Civ 1043 in favour of the respondents.

The appellants, Scottish Power – the buyers of natural gas under four, almost identical long term gas sales agreements – argued they should be allowed to recover damages for a contractual breach (the underdelivery of gas) under the general law. This was in spite of a compensation mechanism within their agreements which limited the remedy for such a breach to the delivery of the entitled quantity of gas at a discounted rate (“Default Gas”), and which expressly excluded the buyer’s right to seek compensation for such a breach through any other means.

During the initial case, in considering the commercial purpose of the compensation clause in the contracts, Leggatt J thought it improbable that the parties intended a situation where the buyer would automatically receive a quantity of Default Gas as compensation for the undelivered gas and yet still be permitted to seek another remedy for the failure to deliver the very same quantity of gas that already been compensated for. Christopher Clarke LJ was in agreement and further argued, quite sensibly, that the wording of the compensation regime was clear enough that the court was obliged to give effect to it, even though it deprived Scottish Power of a right it would have otherwise had under the law.

This case (along with the recent Transocean v Providence) is rather refreshing given how one of the very cornerstones of English contract law – freedom of contract (a rather sensible and practical doctrine which provides a good deal of certainty and thus is beloved by businesses everywhere) – has been placed under some scrutiny recently.

One hopes for more cases like Scottish Power v BP on the horizon but we’ll have to wait and see.

 

FOB Sellers liable to Buyers for shortage and overshipment.

 

 

London Arbitration 23/16 is an interesting award on the obligation of fob sellers in delivering the correct quantity of goods to the vessel/s nominated by the buyers. The sellers concluded three fob sales for a total of 12,000 mt straight steel bars of different qualities and specifications, which were subject to two shipments. There was a shortage on the first shipment, and an excess discharged on the second shipment which included bundles of 10 mm bars with white painted ends that should not have formed part of the cargo for that vessel.

The buyers successfully claimed damages from the sellers for (a) the compensation paid to receivers for the shortage and (b) compensation paid to shipowners in respect of delays to the discharge of the vessel, detention of the vessel following discharge, shifting expenses and a fine, consequent upon the over-shipment. The type of loss – expenses on shifting at orders of port authority consequent on discharge of excess cargo – was reasonably foreseeable.

The tribunal held that sellers’ were in breach of their obligation to place the correct quantity and quality of cargo on board the vessels nominated by the buyers, and this obligation was not limited to delivering the steel to the forwarding agent. Clause 4 of the contract specifically stated that this was an fob contract and its meaning was not affected by the fact that there was no specific requirement for the buyers to nominate a vessel.

The tribunal rejected the sellers’ argument that the chain of causation had been broken by the failure of the masters of the two vessels to issue accurate bills of lading. The bills of lading did not identify the different bar sizes loaded but simply stated the total number of bundles and the total weight of the cargo under the heading “Shipper’s description of goods”, and stated “shipped in apparent good order and condition … weight, measure, quality, quantity, condition, contents and value unknown”. It was fanciful to suggest that the master of the first vessel should have been aware that there was a shortage of 70 bundles out of 2793 bundles, or that the master of the second vessel should have been aware that he was loading a quantity of 10 mm bars with white markings which should not have formed part of that shipment.

 

The Global Santosh and the Vicarious Performance of Third Parties

The Supreme Court today (11 May 2016) handed down its decision in NYK Bulkship (Atlantic) NV v Cargill International SA (The Global Santosh) [2016] UKSC 20.

Simon Rainey QC, visiting fellow of the IISTL, was brought in to argue the SC appeal and represented the successful appellants, Cargill.

The decision of the Supreme Court is a landmark one in relation to a contracting party’s responsibility for the vicarious or delegated performance by a third party of its contractual obligations, both in the common charterparty and international sale of goods contexts.

Overview

The Global Santosh was time chartered on terms that the vessel should be off-hire during any period of detention or arrest by any authority or legal process, unless the detention or arrest was “occasioned by any personal act or omission or default of the Charterers or their agents.” She was arrested as a result of a dispute between the receiver of the cargo and a party who appears to have been a sub-sub-charterer, and which had nothing to do with the owners or the ship. The question which arises on this appeal is whether the arrest can be regarded as having been occasioned by the time charterer’s “agents” in the sense in which that word is used in the proviso.

The meaning of the common term “or their agents” in this charter context raised far-reaching issues as to the extent of a party’s responsibility under a contract for the acts of a third party who vicariously performs some aspect of the party’s contractual obligations or to whom performance of the obligation has been delegated by the creation and operation of a series of sub-contracts.

These issues, previously only canvassed at first instance and open to debate, have now been addressed in full by the Supreme Court.

Summary of the Supreme Court’s Decision

  1. In general terms, in deciding whether a contracting party is liable or responsible for some act or omission done by a third party in performing that party’s obligation under a contract, the correct approach is to define what obligation has been delegated to the third party and to what extent that party is vicariously acting as the contracting party in acting or omitting to act.
  1. In the specific context of a time charterparty off hire clause, the question as to who bears responsibility for delay occasioned by an arrest by or involving such a third party is one of construction of the clause.
  1. But the use of the concept of charterer’s “agents” in such a provision (and others) is to be approached in just the same general way.
  1. In particular, there is no over-arching concept of ‘spheres of responsibility’ which would treat any party who becomes involved in the chain of contracts around the charterparty which result from the charterer’s trading of the vessel and its commercial or trading arrangements (such as a sub- or sub-sub- charterer or a buyer or seller of cargoes) as its “agent” by being on the charterer’s ‘side of the line’.

More from the OWB bunker saga. Agency and conversion.

In The Cosco Felixstowe Shipowners ordered bunkers from D2, a bunker trader in Singapore who had contracted with OWBS to supply the bunkers. OWBS had in turn contracted with OWBC who had contracted with the plaintiff who physically supplied the bunkers to the vessel. Leave was granted pursuant to serve a writ out of the jurisdiction on D2 and OWBC under Order 11 rule 1(1)(f) of the Rules of the High Court that D2 had committed a tort (ie the tort of conversion) within the jurisdiction, and/or under rule 1(1)(d) on the basis that it was arguable that OWBC had entered the contract with P as agent for D2.

The Hong Kong Court of First Instance (Deputy High Court Judge Le Pichon) [2016] HKCFI 492 – 18 March 2016, has now denied D2’s application to set aside the grant of leave. It was arguable that there was a material difference between the terms of OWB’s contract in The Res Cogitans and P’s standard terms in the present case in that the latter provided no unambiguous authorisation to consume the bunkers for propulsion purposes prior to payment. The conversion would be constituted by OWBS’ contractual obligation to procure use of the bunkers before payment had been made. A clause in P’s contract that the buyer and the vessel owner would only use the bunkers for the operation of the vessel did not amount to consent by P to immediate consumption of the bunkers.

It was also arguable that there was an agency chain running from D2 to OWBC who contracted with the physical supplier, in which case there would be a contract with P made by an agent within the jurisdiction.