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Importance of Master’s cargo checks

A decision in recent High Court case has made it clear that there is no implied indemnity from a charterer to their counterpart owners if cargo shippers present bills of lading that record the cargo as being loaded clean on board, even if the shippers could have ascertained that the cargo was in fact damaged at the time of loading.

Ince partner Jamila Khan and managing associate Natalie Nielsen lay out the facts of the case. Noble Chartering Inc (the disponent owner) timechartered a vessel from the head owner and then sub-voyage chartered the vessel to Priminds Shipping (HK) Co Ltd (the voyage charterer). Under the voyage charterparty, the vessel loaded a cargo of soya beans in bulk at Santos, Argentina, for discharge at Guangzhou, China. The cargo was loaded by the cargo shipper from a silo via mechanical hoppers.

At the discharge port, the cargo receiver discovered that portions of the cargo had suffered heat and mould damage. In order to prevent the arrest of the vessel, the shipowner secured the receiver’s cargo claim and agreed that it would be subject to Chinese law and the jurisdiction of the Chinese courts. The receiver’s cargo claim was litigated in the Chinese courts, who found the shipowner liable to the receiver for $1,086,564.70.

The shipowner in turn brought a claim against the disponent owner under the terms of the time charterparty, seeking a contribution of 50% of the sum paid to the receiver. This claim was settled by the disponent owner paying $500,000 to the shipowner.

The disponent owner then commenced London arbitration against the voyage charterer under the voyage charterparty, seeking to recover the $500,000 paid to the shipowner and the costs of defending that claim. The disponent owner claimed that they were owed an indemnity for these costs, although there was no express provision in the voyage charterparty providing for such an indemnity.

Arbitration findings

Following arbitration, the Tribunal’s Award highlighted the facts that the cargo had been damaged by heating caking and by mould; that both types of damage were pre-existing at the time of loading but were not reasonably visible to the Master during loading, so the Master could not have verified the condition of the cargo; and the damage would have been reasonably visible to the shipper at the time of loading.

The disponent owner argued that the words “Clean on Board” and “SHIPPED at the Port of Loading in apparent good order and condition” in the draft bill of lading that the shipper provided to the Master for his signature amounted to a representation or warranty by the shipper as to the apparent condition of the cargo at the time of loading. The disponent owners pointed out that the shipper was acting as the voyage charterer’s agent in loading the cargo and said that, by presenting the draft bill of lading in those terms, it had represented that the cargo was in good order when it was loaded – although it was not – and so the voyage charterer owed them an indemnity for the losses caused by the cargo damage.

The Court rejected this argument, stating that although the Hague Rules provide an indemnity in respect of information provided by the charterer which is included in the bills of lading (for example, the marks on bales of cargo or the cargo weights), this indemnity did not extend to statements concerning the apparent order and condition of the cargo. The wording relating to the condition of the cargo in the draft bill of lading was not a representation or a warranty by the shipper or voyage charterer, but was instead an invitation to the Master to make a representation of fact about the state of the cargo, in accordance with his own assessment of the cargo’s apparent condition. Accordingly, the Court held that the voyage charterer did not owe an implied indemnity to the disponent owner in relation to the cargo claim.

Viewpoint

Commented Ms Khan and Ms Nielsen: “Industry observers are unlikely to be surprised by the Court’s ruling in this case, as it has long been understood that it is incumbent on a master to perform his own assessment of the apparent state of the cargo during loading and, if necessary, to clause the bill of lading (despite any “clean” wording in the draft provided by the shippers).

“In practice, a master is often not in a position to make an accurate assessment of the condition of the cargo while it is being loaded. Under English law this gives the shipowners a defence under the Hague/Hague-Visby Rules against a claim brought by the cargo receivers. However, due to the global nature of shipping, a shipowner could face a situation where they are obliged to accept the jurisdiction of a local court that does not apply these defences in the same way. In such circumstances, the shipowner will only be able to pass this claim down to their charterers if the charterparty terms permit it, for example by incorporating the terms of the Inter-Club Agreement.

“This decision makes it clear that there is no implied indemnity from a charterer to their counterpart owners if their agents (the cargo shippers) present bills of lading that record the cargo as being loaded clean on board, even if the shippers could have ascertained that the cargo was in fact damaged at the time of loading.”
Source: The Baltic Exchange

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