Message from the Supreme Court: do your due diligence

Yesterday’s Supreme Court decision in BPE Solicitors v Hughes-Holland [2017] UKSC 21 looks like a dry-as-dust decision on the measure of damages in professional negligence cases. It is more important than that, however.

A financier, G, was negligently misinformed by his solicitor about a project he was thinking of financing. To cut a long story short, G was led to believe he was bankrolling the carrying out of a property development, while in fact he was merely refinancing the property owner’s own crippling indebtedness, leaving no assets left over to actually do the work. Having taken the loan the borrower went bust; the property was sold for a song, and G lost his hard-earned cash.

Pretty obviously, had G not been misled he would have run a mile and invested his funds elsewhere, where they would still have been available to him. There was however a complication: quite apart from any misinformation by his lawyers, the project he invested in was a complete dud from beginning to end. In other words, even if what his solicitors told him had been entirely true and he had been financing the actual works, he would still have been pouring his money down the drain, and he would still have lost out.

Upholding the Court of Appeal, Lord Sumption (speaking for the court) decided that G recovered nothing. Even though he would not have made the disastrous investment he did but for his solicitors’ blunder, his solicitors’ duty did not extend to protecting him from garden variety commercial misfortune. It followed that (contrary to a number of earlier authorities) the so-called SAAMCO cap (see South Australia Asset Management Corpn v York Montague Ltd [1997] AC 191) applied to reduce recovery to nil.

The significance of this decision to businesses generally, from lenders of money to buyers of ships or businesses, is that it removes what was once quite a comforting safety-net. Prior to BPE, if professional advisers negligently failed to tell a client facts indicating that some investment he was seeking to make was entirely unacceptable or unviable, the client could recover his entire (foreseeable) loss, even if other commercial conditions indicated that the deal was a disaster and he would have lost out anyway regardless of the facts he was not told about. Quite rightly, the Supreme Court has now closed off this means of palming off one’s own financial misjudgment on somebody else’s professional indemnity insurers. As the title says: do your due diligence. If you don’t, from now on you’re on your own.

New York judgment against you? England expects you to pay up, in pretty short order.

A refreshing no-nonsense approach from Teare J today in Midtown Acquisitions LP v Essar Global Fund Ltd [2017] EWHC 519 (Comm) to a guarantor desperately trying to avoid enforcement in London of a judgment given against it in Manhattan. EGF had guaranteed a facility given to Essar Steel Minnesota LLC, a now-very-bankrupt former subsidiary of monster Indian conglomerate Essar Global. When Essar Minnesota defaulted, EGF  confessed liability ; a New York judge duly signed judgment against it in the modest sum of about $172 million. EGF applied to vacate the judgment: meanwhile the creditor, Midtown, wasted no time and applied to enforce it in England.

Teare J in quick succession demolished four arguments hopefully raised against enforcement.

(a) The New York order was based on a confession of liability, with no action technically brought. Irrelevant, he said: it was still a judgment.

(b) The outstanding application to vacate meant that the judgment wasn’t final. Nonsense: it was immediately binding as res judicata in New York unless and until set aside, and that sufficed to make it enforceable in England.

(c) The judgment was on admissions, with neither party arguing on the law or the facts. So what? It was still a judgment on the merits — i.e. whether EGF had to pay $172 million.

(d) To a half-hearted pleading of fraud, Teare J answered shortly that only a showing of conscious and deliberate dishonesty would do to establish this, and none had been pleaded or shown.

In addition he was prepared to enforce the judgment on the basis of a clause under which “The Guarantor agrees that a judgment in any such action, suit or proceeding may be enforced in any other jurisdiction by suit upon such judgment … The Guarantor hereby waives any objection it may now or hereafter have to the laying of the venue of any such action, suit or proceeding, and … further waives any claim that any such action, suit or proceeding brought in any of the aforesaid courts has been brought in any inconvenient forum.”

The only indulgence he allowed was a short stay of execution until one week after the result of the application to vacate: unless the application was successful, execution would then follow automatically.

In our view this judgment is to be welcomed and should be widely publicised. If a creditor has a clear claim, the fact that it got judgment on it quickly, with no argument, ought to be a factor in favour of, rather than against, its being immediately able to enforce that judgment here. Furthermore, delaying tactics such as applications to vacate should generally not be allowed to derail the process. The message is simple: even outside the EU context, bring your judgments to London, and we’ll enforce them unless the other side produces a pretty convincing reason why we shouldn’t.

 

Narrow channels and crossings

A rare pure collision case in the Admiralty Court today in Nautical Challenge Ltd v Evergreen Marine (UK) Ltd [2017] EWHC 453 (Admty). Suppose Vessel A is coming out of a narrow channel and Vessel B is entering it: suppose further that Vessel A is approaching Vessel B on the latter’s starboard bow. The Colregs crossing rule says Vessel A has priority: the narrow channel rule says Vessel A must manoeuvre to pass Vessel B port to port. Which applies? Teare J has little doubt: it’s the narrow channel rule, following the Hong Kong decision in Kulemesin v HKSAR [2013] 16 HKCFA 195. Useful to know, and to clear up a long-standing controversy.

Offshore drilling and Jones Act

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U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) is proposing to modify and revoke previous Headquarter ruling letters relating  to the exception to the Jones Act for the carriage between two U.S. points of “vessel equipment,” which has not been considered “merchandise”.

 

The modifications will affect the use of foreign flagged vessels in offshore drilling under the Jones Act (46 U.S.C. 55102), through  revocation of prior rulings that:

transport of pipe for repair of offshore sites was not considered engagement in coastwise trade;  the installation of anodes on a subsea pipeline did not constitute an engagement in coastwise trade because the activity was in the nature of the repair;

a foreign flagged vessel may engage in laying and repairing of pipe in territorial waters and installing pipeline connectors to offshore drilling platforms and subsea wellheads;

if the sole use of a vessel is underwater repairs to offshore or subsea structures, then it is not considered a use in coastwise trade;

if the sole use of a vessel is in the installation or servicing of a wellhead assembly at a location within U.S. waters, then it is not considered a use in the coastwise trade.

 

CBP has extended the time for comments on these proposals  to April 18, 2017

 

 

 

Gencon strike clause. Notice not needed for what charterers already know.

 

London Arbitration 9/17 concerned the third paragraph of the general strike clause in Gencon 94 which provides.

If there is a strike or lock-out affecting the discharge of the cargo on or after vessel’s arrival at or off port of discharge and same has not been settled within 48 hours, Receivers shall have the option of keeping vessel waiting until such strike or lock-out is at an end against paying half demurrage after expiration of the time provided for discharging, or of ordering the vessel to a safe port where she can safely discharge without risk of being detained by strike or lock-out. Such orders to be given within 48 hours after Captain or Owners have given notice to Charterers of the strike or lock-out affecting the discharge.

 

A strike occurred after the vessel’s arrival at the discharge port of Chittagong and came to an end before laytime expired. No notice was given by the owners but both the charterers and the receivers were aware of the strike and did nothing. The tribunal held that laytime continued to run during the period of the strike.

 

 

Arbitrating against a dead defendant. Section 18 to the rescue?

Silver Dry Bulk v Homer Hulbert Maritime [2017] EWHC 44 (Comm) involved an arbitration where the defendant had ceased to exist by the time arbitration was commenced. Silver Dry Bulk Company Ltd, a Maltese company and a 100% subsidiary of General National Maritime Transportation Company (“GNMTC”), the Libyan national maritime company had bought a vessel from Homer Hulbert Maritime, a Marshall Islands company, which was a 100% subsidiary within the Sinokor group of companies, a Korean ship owner and operator. Silver Dry claimed that part of the purchase price represented a secret commission to one of Colonel Gaddaffi’s sons who at the time had complete control over GNMTC.

Shortly after completion of the sale Homer Hulbert filed articles of dissolution. Under the law of the Marshall Islands a dissolved company is kept alive for three years for the puposes of prosecuting suits by or against them. After expiry of that time Silver Dry commenced arbitration against Homer Hulbert. The arbitration clause in the sale contract provided:  “On the receipt by one party of the nomination in writing of the other party’s arbitrator, that party shall appoint their arbitrator within fourteen days, failing which the decision of the single arbitrator appointed shall apply.” Receiving no response from the dead company, after 14 days Silver Dry constituted their arbitrator as sole arbitrator. They claimed  that Homer Hulbert continued  to survive sufficiently for the purpose of being the defendant to a claim in arbitration, an issue which it wanted to be decided by the sole arbitrator, applying the principle of kompetenz-kompetenz.  The ultimate intent behind the proceedings seems to have been to go against the Korean parent company

To avoid wasting time and expense of arbitrating if the arbitration were subsequently turn out to be a nullity, Silver Dry asked the court the court should make an order under section 18(3) of the Arbitration Act 1996 directing that the arbitral tribunal has been validly constituted.  The provision gives the Court power to (a) give directions as to the making of any necessary appointments;(b) direct that the tribunal shall be constituted by such appointments (or any one or more of them) as have been made; (c) to revoke any appointments already made;(d) to make any necessary appointments itself

Teare J refused to make such an order.  When there is an issue whether a tribunal would have jurisdiction, it has been held that the court has power to make the orders listed in section 18(3) if the claimant can satisfy the test of showing a good arguable case. However, these powers can only be exercised if there has been “a failure of the procedure for the appointment of the arbitral tribunal”. That will not be the case if the procedure has operated in the way that it was supposed to, albeit without the cooperation of one of the parties. Here the appointment procedure had worked as contemplated by the parties’ agreement, with the claimant’s nominee automatically becoming sole arbitrator after 14 days, for which no assistance from the court was required.

Silver Dry also applied under section 44 for the issue of Letters of Request directed to the Korean courts for the production of emails between specified individuals or email accounts, connected with the negotiation of the sale, for a limited period. Teare J refused to make such an order. The issue of a Letter of Request would require him  to make a representation to the foreign court that (1) there was, or at the very least there probably was, an arbitration in existence for the purpose of which production of the documents is requested and (2) the documents were required for the purpose of the arbitration. He was not able to do so as the issue of the continued existence of Home Hulbert remained to be decided.  The position might be different if the sole arbitrator had expressed a view that production of the documents was necessary in order for there to be a fair resolution of the issues in the arbitration, but this was not the case.

 

Exclusive jurisdiction: where is the obligation not to sue to be performed?

A nice point of potential importance in conflict of laws: see AMT Futures Ltd v Marzillier & Ors [2017] UKSC 13 today. If someone in Germany has a contract with you providing for exclusive jurisdiction in England and they nevertheless sue in Germany, do the English courts have jurisdiction under Brussels I to hear your claim for damages? Against the other contracting party, clearly Yes. But what if you want to sue a third party for bankrolling the action and thereby inducing the breach of the obligation? Is the harm suffered by you suffered here within Art.5.3 (Art.7.2 Recast)? No. The relevant obligation is to be construed as an obligation to refrain from suing in Germany, not an obligation to sue in England if you sue at all.

Another interesting point raised in the case was whether entertaining an action for breach of the obligation not to sue in Germany was itself contrary to the full faith and credit ethos lying behind the Brussels regime (as denied in West Tankers v Allianz [2012] EWHC 854 (Comm)). The SC refused to grasp this hot potato: perhaps wisely, since it may well not matter after Brexit.

The proper place to sue: holding companies, etc

Another transnational tort claim against a UK holding company on the lines of Chandler v Cape plc [2012] EWCA Civ 525; [2012] 1 WLR 3111 was dealt with today by Laing J: see AAA v Unilever Plc [2017] EWHC 371 (QB). Employees and others connected with a sub-subsidiary of Unilever in Kenya  suffered political violence at the hands of thugs after the 2007 Kenyan election. They sued not only the Kenyan company involved (essentially the Brooke Bond tea operation), but Unilever, alleging failure by it as holding company to make sure its local operation took care to protect them. Unilever sought to get rid of the action, on the basis of (a) Act of State (since the actions, or rather inactions, of the Kenyan police were in issue); (b) forum non conveniens; and (c) case management grounds. The attempt failed. On (a) it had to founder since Belhaj v Straw [2017] UKSC 3; [2017] 2 WLR 456 and nothing more needs to be said. On (b) her Ladyship was forced by Brussels I Recast, Art.4 and Owusu v Jackson [2005] QB 801 to refuse a stay, even though most of the connections were with Kenya, and indeed there were fairly clear indications that the claimants were only suing Unilever here in order to be able to sue the Kenyan subsidiary in the English rather than the Kenyan High Court. What is more significant is the decision on (c), the case management argument. Unilever relied on a throw-away line of Coulson J in Lungowe v Vedanta Resources Plc [2016] EWHC 975 (TCC) at [84] to argue that there might be a stay if there was no serious issue to be tried between the claimants and Unilever. But even though it was found that there was indeed no serious issue to be tried between the claimants and Unilever, Laing J refused to go down this road, regarding it as an unjustified attempt to sideline Owusu v Jackson in the absence of pending proceedings abroad such as would justify a stay under Brussels I Recast, Art.34. The only way Unilever could get rid of the action was by showing, in the old-fashioned way, that it was bound to fail.

This is an unfortunate result for defendants sued on dubious causes of action in England, if only because it is much more time-consuming and expensive to show that an action must fail than to argue that it is being brought in the wrong place. One suspects that this will add to the pressure on the government to include in its Brexit shopping-list a wholesale revision of the Brussels I provisions on jurisdiction. Indeed, if this were done, one attraction of companies setting up shop here would be precisely the protection against inappropriate lawsuits that the current EU law pointedly fails to give.

Asymmetric jurisdiction clauses and the Brussels Recast Judgments Regulation 2012

 

 

Asymmetric jurisdiction agreements are a long established and practical feature of international financial documentation. Under a typical asymmetric jurisdiction clause X (say a bank) and Y (say a borrower) agree that Y may sue X in the courts of jurisdiction A only but that X may bring proceedings against Y elsewhere. In Commerzbank Akt v Pauline Shipping and Liquimar Tankers [2017] EWHC 161 (Comm) the bank made various loans for ship purchase which were subject to guarantees on similar terms, including the provision of a clause for the benefit of the bank, conferring jurisdiction on the English courts. The borrowers defaulted and the bank exercised its rights to sell one of the vessels, the Adriadni. The guarantors brought proceedings against the bank in Greece, the first seeking orders that the guarantee of the loan was discharged and it was not liable to the bank, the second seeking damages from the bank in tort and under the Greek Civil Code for loss of the use of the Adriadni consequent on the arrest. The bank then brought proceedings in the English Court which the guarantors sought to stay under either art 29 or art 30 of the Recast Judgments Regulation.

 

Cranston J s held that the asymettric jurisdiction clause in the sale and guarantee contracts did confer exclusive jurisdiction on the English courts pursuant to art 31(2) of the Regulation.  Article 25 did not invalidate such clauses. Article 25 required the parties to have designated the courts of a Member State to enable the law applicable to the substantive validity of a jurisdiction clause to be identified and to provide certainty as to the forum in which a putative defendant can expect to be sued.  Article 25 did not require that a valid jurisdiction agreement had to exclude any courts, in particular non EU Courts. Accordingly, the Court refused to stay proceedings under Art. 29.

 

The Court also rejected an application to stay the English proceedings under Art. 30 concerning related proceedings. The agreement to an exclusive jurisdiction clause in favour of the English court was a powerful factor against a stay. In addition, the degree of relatedness between the English and Greek actions was very small and the English court was placed to determine the issue of interpreting and applying the jurisdiction clause.

 

English law and jurisdiction post-Brexit

Evidence has recently been given to the EU justice sub-committee of the House of Lords that Brexit may scare off foreign businessmen from choosing English law and jurisdiction in favour of the Netherlands, Germany or Singapore. Sir Oliver Heald, Justice Minister, has pooh-poohed the idea. We suspect that, even discounting political hype, Sir Oliver may well be correct. Provided that arrangements are made for mutual recognition and enforcement of judgments between the UK and EU – something in all parties’ interests, even if the preservation of the whole of Brussels I is not – it is difficult to see how Brexit will change anything.