OW Bunkers — common sense prevails, and a few answers given

The appeal in the OW Bunkers case, previously noted in this blog, was dismissed today by the UK Supreme Court. To recap (and simplify), what happened was that OW contracted to supply, and supplied, bunkers to a vessel in a Russian port. The bunkers were supplied on 60-day credit and reservation of title terms, and it was expected that by the time the 60 days were up they would have been consumed. OW had obtained the bunkers from Rosneft, again on reservation of title terms. OW then became insolvent. Rosneft argued that the shipowners owed them the value of the bunkers, since OW had never had any title to them and hance had had none to pass to the shipowners. At the same time OW, or rather its bank as assignee of its claims, sought payment under OW’s supply contract with the shipowners. The shipowners, wishing to guard against having to pay twice, said they didn’t have to pay OW because of s.12 of the Sale of Goods Act and also because, whatever the contract between them and OW said, s.49 of the same Act precluded a claim for the price of goods to which no property had passed except in the limited circumstances of s.49(2). Males J and the CA disagreed. The contract between OW and the owners was not, they said, a contract of sale, since the parties envisaged that no property in the fuel would ever pass (since it would have been consumed by the time the price became payable). Thus ss.12 and 49 did not apply.

The Supreme Court essentially agreed. The contract between OW and the owners was sui generis, a licence to use followed by an agreement to pass title to any bunkers left after 60 days. It followed that ss.12 and 49 were irrelevant. The only implied term related to title was a promise by OW that the shipowners would have a valid licence to burn the bunkers. But Lord Mance (who gave the only judgment) also went on to say that even if the contract had been for the sale of goods the result would have been the same because s.49 did not preclude agreements to make the price payable outside the circumstances it mentioned, as was the case here. The section was not, he said, a complete code: in so far as F G Wilson (Engineering) Ltd v John Holt & Co (Liverpool) Ltd [2014] 1 WLR 2365 said it was, it was wrong.

So the owners had to pay OW. What of Rosneft’s claim? Nothing definite was said of that, but reading between the lines the SC seems to indicate that it might well fail on the basis that by selling the bunkers to OW on the terms they did, Rosneft had acquiesced in their consumption.

Overall, this seems the sensible  result (though there is still something odd about the idea that sales for consumption morph into something else as soon as you introduce a reservation of title clause).

One further thought. One simple piece of legislation would have avoided all this, and also a great many other problems related to reservation of title. What about a provision that no reservation of title clause can be asserted against a third party obtaining, using or consuming goods in the ordinary course of business, whether or not the latter knows of the clause concerned? If we want to encourage the retention of English law as the system of choice for supply contracts of this sort, we need to keep ahead of the game. Does anyone in the Dept for Business, Innovation and Skills follow this blog, and if not might someone point it out to them?

Remoteness restated

In an otherwise rather boring solicitors’ negligence case, the CA have included a useful nugget. All three of their Lordships accepted that where a person such as a professional can be liable either in contract or in tort — in other words, where there is concurrent liability — the relevant test for remoteness of damage is that in contract, namely the rule in Hadley v Baxendale. And quite right too.

See Wellesley Partners LLP v Withers LLP [2015] EWCA Civ 1146, November 11, 2015.

AT

 

Insolvency and anticipatory breach. More from Singapore

In The STX Mumbai [2015] SGCA 3; [2016] 1 Lloyd’s Rep 157, the Singapore Court of Appeal has held that the doctrine of anticipatory breach does apply to executed contracts and in appropriate circumstances a party’s insolvency is capable of amounting to an anticipatory breach. Bunkers had been supplied to a vessel with payment to be made within 30 days. A company in the corporate group of which the shipowning company was a part had become insolvent and the bunker supplier took the view that payment was unlikely to be made. Accordingly, three days before the due date for payment, they demanded immediate payment by the close of business, and when that was not forthcoming, arrested the vessel the following day. At first instance the in rem proceedings were struck out as legally unsustainable as the insolvency of an associated company in the shipowner’s corporate group did not amount to an anticipatory breach by the shipowner. Futhermore, the Judge expressed the view that the doctrine of anticipatory breach applied only to executory contracts and not to an executed contract such as the present.

The Court of Appeal disagreed. The doctrine could apply to executed contracts. Although insolvency in itself would not constitute an anticipatory breach, it might well do so in the proper context. Much would depend on the precise facts, which could only be adduced if the action went to trial. The evidence showed some plausible connection between the insolvent company and the shipowner such that it was not completely unarguable that the former’s insolvency could well have made it impossible for the latter to make timely payment under the bunker supply contract in respect of the vessel. Accordingly, the bunker supplier’s case was not legally unsustainable and its claim would not be struck out.

Penalty clauses revamped

The law on penalty clauses, a bugbear to commercial lawyers for some time, has been re-written by the Supreme Court. The court declined to abolish the doctrine — mainly for the rather unconvincing reason that other European jurisdictions all had restrictions on liquidated damages stipulations, that English lawyers shouldn’t be bad Europeans, and that the Council of Europe thought them a Good Thing.

But the court did rationalise the law, saying that essentially the question is whether the amount stipulated for is wholly disproportionate to the interest of the claimant in protecting his right to performance. If it isn’t, then the clause has the green light. This should be a relief to commercial lawyers, who provided they don’t go completely bananas in setting the amount payable now have some guarantee that the courts won’t allow the other party to come snivelling that the provision is a technical penalty.

Hence in one case a seller of a business can validly forfeit a goodly proportion of the selling price if he breaks a noncompete agreement; and in the other (more homely) case a parking operator can set a substantial charge for overstaying. Neither is an objectionable penalty.

See Cavendish Square Holding BV v Talal El Makdessi (Rev 3) [2015] UKSC 67 (4 November 2015), available on BAILII.

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