Viscous Global Investment Ltd v Palladium Navigation Corp [2014] EWHC 2654 (Comm)

The Claimants had claims for cargo damage against the vessel Owners arising under four bills of lading. The vessel was the subject of a chain of three charterparties. The head and sub-charter provided for London Arbitration (two arbitrators unless a sole could be agreed), and the LMAA Small Claims Procedure for claims under US$100,000. The sub-sub-charter provided for Singapore Arbitration.

Owners’ P&I Club provided an LOU to the Claimants as security for their claims. The LOU provided for London Arbitration before a three-man Tribunal, stating in part: “we confirm that the Ship Owners agree that the above mentioned claims shall be subject to London Arbitration … and English Law to apply … and for each party to nominate its own arbitrator and the two so appointed may appoint a third”.

The Claimants commenced arbitration under the terms of the LOU, and Owners challenged the Tribunal’s jurisdiction. Owners argued that the arbitration clause in the head charter was incorporated into the bills of lading and that this remained intact, despite the provisions of the LOU. This included the use of the Small Claims Procedure. Owners said that the appointed Tribunal had no jurisdiction over claims which would inevitably be less than US$100,000.

The Court held that the arbitration provision in the LOU replaced the charterparty arbitration clauses. The Claimants had validly commenced arbitration and the Tribunal as appointed had jurisdiction.

The key question was whether the parties had intended the provisions of the LOU to replace the original arbitration provisions wholesale, or merely to vary them in limited respects but leaving them in force. The arbitration clause in the LOU was comprehensive and able to operate as a free standing agreement. Further, there was no reason in principle why the terms of the LOU should not operate as a complete replacement.

The Court identified “compelling reasons” supporting the parties’ intention that this should be the outcome. A particular focus was placed on certainty. Having an arbitration agreement located partly in an LOU and partly in a charterparty would be a “recipe for confusion”, especially where, as here, there was scope for disagreement as to which of the charterparty arbitration clauses would apply. The possibility of such disagreement was removed by the LOU.

This case highlights the importance of considering carefully whether the provisions of any binding documents, such as LOUs, will vary or even supersede the provisions of existing contracts. The court will consider all such documents in context, and in the light of common business sense. The parties’ intentions do not have to be explicitly set down in documents or correspondence for the court to make findings, in light of all the circumstances, as to what those intentions were.

Finally, it is interesting to note the Court’s comments, at the beginning of the judgment that it is difficult to see that the parties’ costs were well spent, where the amounts in dispute were modest and there was no dispute that the claims ought to be arbitrated. The Court noted that, in fact, Owners appeared to be seeking to knock out the claims on a technical point, because any new arbitration would be time barred, albeit it accepted that this was something which Owners were entitled to do.