Shot by both sides? Interpleader proceedings in the OWB saga.

 

The bankruptcy of OW Bunkers in November 2014 has led to many shipowners facing competing claims for the supply of bunkers from ING as assignee of OWB and from physical bunker suppliers. In Hapag-Lloyd Aktiengesellschaft v. U.S. Oil Trading LLC, http://law.justia.com/cases/federal/appellate-courts/ca2/15-97/15-97-2016-02-24.html, an interpleader was filed on behalf of shipowners and an injunction obtained preventing the imminent arrests of three of vessels by U.S. Oil Trading LLC, the physical supplier of bunkers. The Second Circuit has now rejected U.S. Oil Trading’s appeal. This contrasts with the position in Singapore last year where the Court of Appeal denied interpleader proceedings in similar circumstances. It reasoned that the suppliers’ in rem claims did not compete with ING’s contractual, in personam, claims. In the UK the shipping world awaits with bated breath the decision of the Supreme Court on whether the Sale of Goods Act applies to contracts for the supply of bunkers.

Singapore Court orders sale of liened cargo

In Five Ocean Corporation v Cingler Ship Pte Ltd [2015] SGHC 311 the High Court of Singapore has ordered the sale of cargo subject to a lien exercised by the shipowner on behalf of the head charterer pursuant to a bill of lading incorporating the terms of the sub-charter, which was subject to Singapore arbitration and English law. The order was made pursuant to the powers of the court under s12 A (4) of the International Arbitration Act, which is in similar terms to s 44(3) of the English Arbitration Act 1996. Section 12 A (4) provides “If the case is one of urgency, the High Court or a Judge thereof may, on the application of a party or proposed party to the arbitral proceedings, make such orders under subsection (2) as the High Court or Judge thinks necessary for the purpose of preserving evidence or assets.” All parties were before the court and subject to its in personam jurisdiction.

The court held that an order for sale was “necessary” in order to preserve the “asset”, the disponent owner’s right to detain possession of the Cargo. The vessel was in international waters in the Bay of Bengal and the crew had been on board the vessel for almost four months, and some were falling ill. There was a lack of fresh food, water and medical supplies and overheating of the cargo of coal had been detected, with the risk of self-ignition should it continue to remain in the Vessel’s holds, a dire situation exacerbated by the monsoon season. The shipowners had been willing to exercise their lien under the bill of lading but the court noted that they would have been obliged to do so by reason of the employment clause in the time charter.

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.

Ship arrest in Singapore

Cases of liability for wrongful arrest in Admiralty are rare: successful claims, which require a showing of malice or gross negligence, even more so. We now have an account of one at the end of last year in Singapore. Bunker suppliers sold bunkers to the (now-very-bankrupt) OW Group; they were passed on paper through other OW companies, one of which fuelled the vessel. It’s elementary law that if A sells to B and B to C, then A has no claim against C: it was also plain to any third-year law student that the suppliers hadn’t a cat in hell’s chance of showing agency in any of the OW companies. Nevertheless, having voluntarily given credit to the uncreditworthy, the suppliers blithely went and arrested the ship in Singapore. Not surprisingly they were held liable in damages. The case is The Xin Chang Shu [2015] SGHC 308. The judgment, worth a look, is here; a useful note on it can be found here.

With thanks to Prof E Macdonald for the tip-off.

AT

In rem jurisdiction and ‘damage done by a ship’.

In The “Vinalines Pioneer the High Court of Singapore [2015] SGHC 278 has held that a claim for loss of containers on board a vessel did not constitute ‘damage done by a ship’ within the meaning of s.3(1)(d) of Singapore’s the High Court (Admiralty Jurisdiction) Act which is identical to s. 20(2)(e) of the UK Senior Courts Act 1981. Belinda Ang Saw Ean J adopted the externality test applied by Clarke J in The Rama [1996] 2 Lloyd’s Rep 281, to the maritime lien for damage by a ship. To fall within this heading the damage had to be sustained by a person or property external to the ship. Here the total loss of the containers was the result of damage done to the carrying vessel.

Keep right on to the end (of the charter). No constructive redelivery under bareboat charter.

The termination of a demise charter pursuant to the shipowner’s right of withdrawal is a more complex process than with an ordinary time charter. The charterer still has its crew on board the vessel and some time may elapse before the shipowner is able to retake physical possession of the vessel. In the interim charterers may have entered into commitments with bunker suppliers and with cargo owners, pursuant to bills of lading.

In The Chem Orchid Lloyd’s Law Reports , [2014] 1 Lloyd’s Rep. 520, the High Court of Singapore had to decide whether the bareboat charterer, the “relevant person” who would be liable in personam, was the demise charterer when the cause of action arose, so as to found jurisdiction under s.4(4) of the Singapore High Court (Admiralty Jurisdiction) Act, which is in identical terms to s.21(4) of the UK Senior Courts Act 1981. The Assistant Registrar struck out the writs in rem on the grounds that the charter had been terminated prior to the issue of the writs. Accordingly, the vessel could not be arrested in relation to claims arising in the interim between the notice of termination being given and physical redelivery of the vessel to the shipowners.

The decision has now been reversed by Steven Chong J, [2015] 2 Lloyd’s Rep. 666, who held that the charter had not been validly terminated, but even it had, there was no concept of constructive delivery applicable to the termination of bareboat charters which continue until physical redelivery. Therefore, at the time the in rem writs were issued by the bunker suppliers and the cargo claimants, the vessel was still in the possession of the charterers.

On 20 January 2016 the Singapore Court of Appeal held that it had no jurisdiction to hear an appeal from this decision. [2016] SCGA 04.