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Should We Be Avoiding General Average?

Calls for general average to be abolished are nearly as old as the regime itself. A representative of Lloyd’s attended the eponymous Antwerp Conference in 1873 and latterly described general average as a “a nest of fraud and abuses, a lurking place for speculation and waste”. Even in 1913 commentators were complaining about the increasing size of vessels and the volume of bills of lading they created. The Chairman of the US Association of Average Adjusters said of general average that year “the time, trouble, expense and delay are out of all proportion to the benefit achieved”. These comments are surprisingly familiar and it is interesting to see that the same weakness in general average are made today.

Unsurprisingly those involved in transporting or insuring cargo have little love for the regime, when they are usually the paying party. There have been calls in the past for the loss to simply lie where it falls for the respective hull and cargo insurers to absorb. A key piece of research by Mr Matthew Marshall of the Institute of London Underwriters for the IUMI Tokyo conference in 1994 (updated to 1999) really energized the modern debate. His work highlighted the fact that 10% of the cost of general average was adjusters’ fees and another 10% commission (something that has now been abolished in the most recent rules). Perhaps most importantly it was suggested that the majority of general average events were the fault of the ship owner. This helped lead to the ill-fated York-Antwerp Rules 2004 which have now been replaced.

Whilst the York-Antwerp Rules 2004 may now have been replaced with a more moderate regime, the circumstances which give rise to criticism of general average are more relevant than ever. Many commentators have written about the increasing size of container ships, the increasing complexity of their contracts of carriage and the severe impact this has on the cost and time required to adjust such a general average event. This observations were again aired in the negotiations to the York-Antwerp Rules 2016.

For the time being, at least, general average does not seem to be in any grave threat of abolition and the status quo (broadly speaking) will continue. However, that doesn’t mean to say that the market is not evolving and adapting to meet the reality of modern general average. General average absorption clauses have long been a feature of H&M policies as a way to avoid low value general average events. Their limits have increased as vessel size and casualty complexity has increased. We have seen examples of such limits being as much as US$1 million.

However, more recently parties involved in container shipping have taken even more aggressive steps. Vessel sharing agreements and slot charters used in the management of container ships often now contain provisions which compel the parties to “consult” to determine whether they can absorb all the general average sacrifices and losses and to try and persuade the Owners not to declare general average. Often these agreements go further and compel the parties to absorb general average between the parties up to a limit of say US$0.5 million (this should be distinguished from a general average adsorption clause in a H&M policy). This shows a commercial decision in container shipping that general average, in principle, should be avoided as it is not in the interests of shippers, who are the customers of container lines.

It is easy to see why. With adjuster’s fees, through no fault of their own, to collect security often running into the hundreds of thousands of dollars and adjustments taking anything up to a decade, it is an unattractive way to deal with losses arising from a casualty in complex container casualties. As a result we have seen container lines go further than the provisions in their contractual agreements in the aftermath of a casualty and enter into bespoke agreements resolving to fund all general average expenses and sacrifice on certain terms. More often than not this prevents any need to collect general average security or obtain cargo documentation for the entire manifest. This simply leaves the carriers to deal with cargo claims (be them sacrifice or otherwise) in the usual way. One might say that this places a greater financial burden on the carriers who are absorbing cargo’s proportion of general average from their bottom line (such a voluntary liability would not ordinarily be insured by the carrier) as ordinarily, cargo’s proportion of general average would be reimbursed by cargo insurers. This may simply be the effect of what is undoubtedly an extremely competitive market place for container shipping, notwithstanding recent mergers.

Ultimately, whether parties should be considering more aggressive steps to avoid general average following an incident, will depend upon the nature of the casualty, the scale of expenses/sacrifice, the legal regimes involved and the number parties. Clearly, the benefits of modifying the “usual” general average process will be greatest in a container casualty scenario but that’s not say that it should not be considered when other types of vessel are involved.
Source: Alex Kemp, Senior Associate at Solicitors Holman Fenwick Willan LLP and Associate of the Association of Average Adjusters

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