Andy Powell Partner
Court finds Covid-19 restrictions did not constitute force majeure under MOA
NKD Maritime Limited v. Bart Maritime (No 2) Inc (Shagang Giant)  EWHC 1615 (Comm)
The Court has construed a force majeure clause and considered whether Buyers validly terminated a contract for the sale of a vessel on the basis that Covid-19 lockdown restrictions prevented Sellers from transferring title in the Vessel.
The background facts
Bart Maritime (No 2) Inc (“Sellers”) contracted to sell the VLOC Shagang Giant (“the Vessel”) to NKD Maritime Limited (“Buyers”) by way of a Memorandum of Agreement dated 5 March 2020 (the “MOA”). The Buyers were an intermediary specialising in acquiring tonnage for scrapping and/or recycling on behalf of a yard.
Scrap/recycling sales of vessels are self-evidently quite different to second-hand sales, and no standard form of contract has been widely adopted. Although not stated expressly in the judgment, the MOA was almost certainly made on a broker’s bespoke form.
The two relevant clauses under the MOA are –
a. Delivery Location
The Vessel shall be delivered and taken over safely afloat at outer anchorage Alang, West Coast India, which shall be the "Delivery Location".
If, on the Vessel's arrival, the Delivery Location is inaccessible for any reason whatsoever including but not limited to port congestion, the Vessel shall be delivered and taken over by the Buyer as near thereto as she may safely get at a safe and accessible berth or at anchorage which shall be designated by the Buyer, always provided that such berth or anchorage shall be subject to the approval of the Seller which shall not be unreasonably withheld. If the Buyer fails to nominate such place within 24 (twenty four) hours of arrival, the place at which it is customary for vessel (sic) to wait shall constitute the Delivery Location. The delivery of the Vessel according to this paragraph shall constitute full performance of the Seller's obligations and all other terms and conditions of this Agreement shall apply as if delivery had taken place.”
Clause 10 of the MOA included a force majeure (“FM”) provision which provided –
“Should the Seller be unable to transfer title of the Vessel or should the Buyer be unable to accept transfer of the Vessel both in accordance with this contract due to …. restraint of governments…. then either the Buyer or the Seller may terminate this Agreement upon written or telegraphic notice from one party to the other without any liability upon either party and the Initial Payment referred to in Clause 1.b. hereof shall be released to the Buyer.”
As a result of Covid-19 restrictions at Alang, the Vessel was prevented from reaching the Delivery Location stipulated in the MOA. The Sellers asked the Buyers to nominate an alternate location for delivery, but the Buyers did not do so. The Buyers then sought to terminate the MOA relying on the FM clause.
The Buyers claimed that the Covid-19 restrictions imposed by the Indian Government constituted a “restraint of governments” and had precluded the Sellers from being able to transfer title in the Vessel in accordance with the MOA. This had meant that the necessary clearances could not be obtained so the Vessel had not reached the Delivery Location.
Consequently, NOR could not be tendered, and no transfer of title in accordance with the MOA was possible. The Buyers were, therefore, entitled to terminate under clause 10 of the MOA and were entitled to the return of the deposit.
The Sellers contended that clause 10 of the MOA was not applicable. The Sellers had not been unable to transfer title in accordance with the MOA. Transfer of title did not require 'delivery' of the Vessel. In any event, even if delivery was a necessary feature of transfer of title, the Sellers had not been unable to deliver the Vessel by reason of the FM event, namely restraint of governments. The Vessel had arrived at the Delivery Location, or as near thereto as she could safely get. The position where she had anchored was thus deemed to be the Delivery Location, and her delivery there constituted full performance of the Sellers’ obligations under the MOA.
The Commercial Court decision
(i) Construction of clause 10 and meaning of “transfer of title”
The Court considered the construction of clause 10 of the MOA and concluded that 'delivery' was not a necessary requirement of 'transfer of title'. The phrases “delivery” and “transfer of title” are both used in the MOA and are not synonymous. Clause 10 conspicuously did not refer to 'delivery' but had deliberately used the term “transfer title of the Vessel.”
'Transfer of title' only requires payment of the price, delivery of the Bill of Sale, and deletion from the relevant ships' register. There was no condition precedent to transfer of title that there should be a Protocol of Delivery and Acceptance and physical delivery.
The FM provision at clause 10 could not, therefore, be invoked where transfer of title was possible.
(ii) Was there delivery under the contract at the required location?
The place at which the Vessel anchored was not “outer anchorage Alang.” The Vessel was, therefore, not at the Delivery Location under the MOA. The question then was whether there had been a substituted Delivery Location under clause 2(a)?
The Court held that the Vessel was required to get as near to the Delivery Location specified as was possible, given the matter which rendered that Delivery Location inaccessible. The Vessel had got as close to Alang outer anchorage as she could, subject to the fact that she did not have permission to come within the VTS Khambat area, which rendered the Delivery Location inaccessible.
The Sellers had fulfilled their obligations to deliver the Vessel in accordance with the MOA and the Buyers could not rely on the FM provision.
(iii) Did the circumstances constitute “restraint of governments” under the FM clause?
The reason the Vessel had not obtained permission to proceed to Alang outer anchorage, and could not have been boarded by officials, was attributable to Covid 19 restrictions. These can be described as a “restraint of governments”. The key issue was then whether that position rendered the Sellers 'unable' to transfer title?
'Inability' is significantly different from hindrance or delay. Whether there is 'inability' to perform for the purposes of clause 10 by reason of a temporary restraint of governments depends on whether the probable period of that restraint will materially undermine the commercial adventure. In assessing this, the Court indicated that similar considerations would apply as those which apply when considering whether a contract is frustrated.
On the facts, the Court did not consider that the delay constituted an 'inability' on the part of the Sellers to perform the MOA for the purposes of clause 10. The Vessel was being sold for demolition and not for trading, and some delays to the beaching of the Vessel were inevitable given her size. Nor did the temporary nature of the particular Covid-19 restrictions materially undermine the commercial adventure.
The Buyers were held to have wrongfully terminated the MOA. The Sellers were entitled to retain the deposit of US$4.2 million but were not entitled to further damages as the deposit more than adequately compensated them for their losses.
This case acts as a useful reminder that a party’s ability to rely on FM provisions will depend on the particular wording and construction of the clause and on the application of the specific facts.
The judgment also contains useful guidance on the construction of similarly worded FM clauses and, in the context of the construction of MOAs, it also offers guidance on the distinction between “delivery” and “transfer of title.” This is particularly useful in the context of scrap sales, where sellers can face problems (and demands for re-negotiation) as a result of attempting delivery in accordance with unexpected local rules and practices in the end-buyers’ home port.
Finally, the decision confirms that Covid-19 restrictions did constitute “restraint of governments” which is a common wording in FM and exception clauses. However, Covid-19 restrictions will not automatically excuse a party from performance, especially where Covid-19 delays are only temporary in nature and do not materially undermine the commercial adventure.
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