Owners of cargo lately laden on board the ship or vessel "Starsin" and others (Original Respondents and Cross-appellants) v. Owners and/or demise charterers of the ship or vessel "Starsin" (Original Appellants and Cross-respondents) and two other actions
53. Before this question of construction can be considered a preliminary issue must be examined. As Lord Bingham has pointed out by reference to the Himalaya clause contained in the Conline bill of lading form some words have been left out of clause 5: see the clauses in New Zealand Shipping Co Ltd v A M Satterthwaite & Co Ltd (The Eurymedon)  AC 154 and Port Jackson Stevedoring Pty Ltd v Salmond & Spraggon (Australia) Pty Ltd (The New York Star)  1 WLR 138. The deletion was plainly a mistake. In these circumstances the court should, in order to give effect to the reasonable expectations of the parties, fill the gap by inserting what had been omitted. What falls to be construed is the clause so reconstructed.
54. The result is that it cannot be argued that part (1) is flawed by reason of a lack of agency or authority. Accordingly part (1) must take effect in accordance with the terms of clause 5 as reconstructed.
55. For my part the language of part (1), contextually considered, is capable of one interpretation only. The shipowners are clearly "independent contractors." It is not capable of being read as a mere covenant not to sue. In categorical language part (1) confers on the shipowners a general exemption from liability.
56. The various attempts by the cargo owners to argue that part (1) is "not clear enough" are on examination at variance with the benign advance heralded by The Eurymedon, carried forward by The New York Star  1 WLR 138 and reaffirmed in The Mahkutai  AC 650. In The New York Star Lord Wilberforce commended a wide interpretation of the reasoning in The Eurymedon. He said at 144:
In The Mahkutai, supra, Lord Goff of Chieveley observed about The Eurymedon (at 664E):
When in ITO Ltd v Mida Electronics Inc 28 DLR (4th) 641 the Supreme Court of Canada followed The Eurymedon, McIntyre J commented (at 667):
This is the approach which should be adopted in the case before the House.
57. In my view the arguments of the cargo owners are of the very type which Lord Wilberforce warned against. I would respectfully also echo an extra-judicial statement by of Lord Goff of Chieveley in Commercial Contracts and the Commercial Court (1984) LMCLQ 382, 391:
This is a particularly apposite observation in regard to the ground-breaking development in The Eurymedon. The difficulties created in international trade by the doctrines of privity of contract and consideration had to be overcome. Those doctrines obstructed the process of giving effect to the reasonable expectations of parties. Fortunately, as was pointed out in ITO, at 667, by McIntyre J, "one of the virtues of the common law is that it has never let pure logic get in the way of common sense and practical necessity when a desirable result is sought to be achieved." The desired result was to give businessmen the freedom to make arrangements for the allocation of risks as they thought right. The decisions in The Eurymedon, and The New York Star, were taken in the context of classical English contract law. It is true that this result can now be achieved more simply and directly by a combination of the Carriage of Goods by Sea Act 1992 and the Contracts (Rights of Third Parties) Act 1999. Nevertheless, the plain objective of the decisions in The Eurymedon and The New York Star was to enable businessmen to make sensible and just commercial arrangements, and thereby further international trade. Legal policy favours the furtherance of international trade. Commercial men must be given the utmost liberty of contracting. They must be left free to decide on the allocate commercial risks. In my view there can be no good reason to set at naught on an interpretative basis the allocation of risk in the Himalaya clause.
58. That brings me to the question of the impact of the incorporated Hague Rules on clause 5. Clause 2 (described as the "Basis of Contract") incorporated the Hague Rules. This neutral fact tells us nothing about the impact of the Hague Rules on the Himalaya clause. That depends on the proper construction of the relevant Hague Rules. Of course, the ship owner will not be entitled to rely on the Himalaya clause if it offends the Hague Rules. The question is whether the exemption in favour of the ship owners in fact is in conflict with the Hague Rules.
59. I turn to the critical provisions of the Hague Rules. Article III rule 8 of the Hague Rules. This provision reads as follows:
The critical question is whether the exemption in the Himalaya clause is contained in a contract of carriage. "Contract of carriage" is a well understood term: it refers to a contractual undertaking for the carriage of goods. It contemplates the usual incidents of such a contract, with the customary executory obligations. Next one has to consider the status of the exemption. In law it is a separate and independent contract. It contains no executory obligations. It merely confers a general exemption on the owners. Is it nevertheless to be treated as "a contract of carriage" within the meaning of article III rule 8? While this is a difficult question I have come to the conclusion that the answer ought to be No. Despite the fact that it comes into existence by the rendering of service by the vessel I am on balance of the view that in its natural and ordinary meaning "a contract of carriage" under article III rule 8 contemplates a contract with the usual incidents and executory obligations of a contract of carriage. In other words, it envisages a contract for the carriage of goods. Focusing simply on article III rule 8 I incline to the view that the exemption is not contained in a contract of carriage.
60. One cannot, however, construe article III rule 8 in isolation. Article III rules 1 and 2 of the Hague Rules are relevant. They read as follows:
Once one has concluded that the exemption is contained in a contract of carriage that must hold good for all the provisions of the Hague Rules including the obligation to make the ship seaworthy, etc. That would indeed be a curious and implausible result flowing from a contract for an exemption clause. It would mean that the cargo owners of damaged parcels on the Starsin would in principle have had contractual remedies not on the bill of lading but on the Himalaya contract. That cannot be right. This factor reinforces my interpretation of article III rule 8. I would therefore hold that in the Hague Rules a contract of carriage means an agreement to carry and not an agreement simply for an exemption albeit that the consideration for the promise involves performance by the vessel.
61. I have noted the reasoning based on the words in para (3) that the independent contractor "shall to this extent be deemed to be [a party] to the contract contained in or evidenced by this Bill of Lading". For my part this places a weight on those words which they will not bear.
62. For my part this result is in no way anomalous. It is loyal to the rationale of the advance in the rationality of English law achieved in The Eurymedon and The New York Star. It results in a readily predictable scheme, viz all claims in contract and tort have to be channelled to the charterers. That gives effect to what the parties intended to achieve. It has the merit of being a just decision achieved without in any way straining the Hague Rules. I would hold that the exemption contained in part (1) of clause 5 protects the owners against any liability in tort.
63. Regretfully, and in the spirit of accepting that one must not be too confident that one is right, I consider it appropriate to record my disagreement with the majority on this issue.
64. This issue falls away. Given that it has been fully argued I accept, however, that the House should express a view on it. It is well established that a claim in negligence for damage to property is only maintainable by a person who had either the legal ownership of or a possessory title to the property at the time when the damage occurred: Leigh and Sillavan Ltd v Aliakmon Shipping Co Ltd (The Aliakmon)  AC 785. Accepting this principle, the cargo owners argue that they meet its requirements. Rix LJ convincingly demonstrated the fallacy in the argument. He said (at 459, cols 1-2):
I am in full agreement with the judgment of Rix LJ in this respect. The exception in respect of Makros Hout, which Rix LJ mentions in paragraph 108 of his judgment, arises because Makros Hout obtained title before the voyage began.
65. I would allow the appeal.
66. The appellants ("the shipowners") are respectively the owners and demise charterers of the bulk carrier Starsin. On 3 October 1995 they time-chartered the vessel to Continental Pacific Shipping ("CPS") for one trip, estimated 65/85 days. On 8 December 1995 the vessel began a voyage from Malaysia to Europe carrying a number of consignments of timber and plywood which had been shipped under separate bills of lading. On arrival in January 1996 it was found that 17 consignments had been damaged by fresh water; some of the cargo had been wet when loaded and negligent stowage had caused condensation which affected those and other consignments during the course of the voyage. The holders of the bills of lading ("the cargo owners") sue the shipowners for breach of the contracts of carriage contained in or evidenced by the bills of lading and in tort for negligence in stowing the goods.
67. Whether the shipowners are liable in contract depends upon whether they were parties to the contract of carriage made with the shippers and evidenced by the bills of lading. The time charter provided in clauses 8 and 33 that CPS should be entitled to require the master to sign bills of lading on behalf of the shipowners or authorise their agents to sign bills of lading on behalf of the master who would in turn be contracting on behalf of the shipowners. So there is no doubt that CPS had authority to cause a contract of carriage to be created between the shipowners and the shippers. But the question is whether they did so.
68. The port agents who signed the bills of lading used printed forms headed "Liner Bill of Lading" and bearing the name and logo of CPS. The printed text, if one reads it through carefully, shows that the forms were meant to be used by a master signing on behalf of the owners. The form has printed on the front "In witness whereof the Master of the said Vessel has signed the number of original Bills of Lading stated below". Then there is a box for the place and date of issue and, below that, another box for a signature. The form does not say expressly on whose behalf the master is signing but the master is the servant of the shipowner and unless he is authorised by the charterers to sign on their behalf and clearly does so the bill of lading will be construed as having been signed on behalf of the shipowner: see The Rewia  2 Lloyd's Rep 325, per Leggatt LJ at p. 333.
69. The impression that the forms are meant to be used as owner's bills is confirmed by a reading of the small print on the back. Clause 33, headed "Identity of Carrier" says in terms that the contract evidenced by the bill of lading is between the cargo owner and "the Owner of the Vessel named herein", that only the shipowner is to be liable for any breach of the contract of carriage, that the "Line, Company or Agents" which has executed the bill of lading "is not a principal in the transaction" and that "the said Line, Company or Agents shall not be under any liability arising out of the contract of carriage".
70. Much the same ground is covered by clause 35, which has no heading but is known as the demise clause. It says that if the vessel is not owned by the company or line by whom the bill of lading is issued "(as may be the case notwithstanding anything that appears to the contrary)" the bill of lading shall take effect only as a contract of carriage with the shipowners. It appears from an article in the Law Quarterly Review by Lord Roskill ((1990) 106 LQR 403-406) that this clause was devised to deal with conditions in the Second World War, when requisitioned ships on time charter were frequently operated by commercial liner companies which issued their own bills of lading. As the law then stood, only an owner or demise charterer could limit liability under sections 502 and 503 of the Merchant Shipping Act 1894. The words quoted above in brackets were, as Lord Roskill said, to "to put the bill of lading holder on express notice of the possibility that the ship concerned was chartered." The rest of the clause was to make it clear that in such case the owner was the carrier. Conformably with this purpose, the demise clause appears originally to have been printed on the front or "business" side of the bill of lading: see The Berkshire  1 Lloyd's Rep 185. One question in this appeal is the extent to which it remains efficacious for this purpose after its migration to the small print on the back.
71. The forms, therefore, were printed for use as owner's bills. But the port agents signed them, in the signature boxes on the front of the documents, "As Agent for Continental Pacific Shipping (The Carrier)" or "As Agents for the Carrier Continental Pacific Shipping" or "As Agents for Continental Pacific Shipping as Carrier". That meant, in my opinion, that anyone reading only the front of the document would think that CPS was the party assuming liability as carrier. He might have been slightly puzzled by the statement that the bill of lading had been signed by the master when it evidently had not. He may well have reflected that people often use forms which have in some respects to be adapted for the particular circumstances without deleting the inconsistent parts: see The Okehampton  P. 173. But the reasonable reader of the front of the bill of lading would have had no doubt that CPS, and only CPS, was accepting liability as carrier. "Carrier" is a technical term familiar to anyone who has to deal with a bill of lading. The bill of lading evidences a contract of carriage and "carrier" is the name given to one of the parties to such a contract. As it happens, that is what condition 1(c) on the back of these bills of lading says. But that is what a reasonable reader would have thought it meant even without looking at the back. It is what Article I(a) of the Hague Rules says it means. In The Flecha  1 Lloyd's Rep. 612 Moore-Bick J., faced with a similar Continental Pacific Shipping bill of lading signed "as agents for Continental Pacific Shipping as carriers" said that the term "carrier" was being used "loosely" and that this was "not unusual or surprising". I can well imagine that a timber merchant in Kuching might say over coffee that his goods were being carried by Continental Pacific Shipping without knowing or caring whether the particular vessel was owned, demise chartered or on time charter. But such loose usage of a critical expression in the bill of lading itself does seem to me surprising.
72. On the other hand, a reader who turned the bill over and read the printed conditions might lose confidence in his initial impression. The identity of carrier and demise clauses would suggest deeper waters in which it might be necessary to resolve the apparent conflict between the form of signature and the other printed provisions of the bill of lading which show that it was meant for use as an owner's bill.
73. How is this conflict to be resolved? The interpretation of a legal document involves ascertaining what meaning it would convey to a reasonable person having all the background knowledge which is reasonably available to the person or class of persons to whom the document is addressed. A written contract is addressed to the parties; a public document like a statute is addressed to the public at large; a patent specification is addressed to persons skilled in the relevant art, and so on.
74. To whom is a bill of lading addressed? It evidences a contract of carriage but it is also a document of title, drafted with a view to being transferred to third parties either absolutely or by way of security for advances to finance the underlying transaction. It is common general knowledge that such advances are frequently made by letter of credit and that the bill of lading is ordinarily one of the documents which must be presented to the bank before payment can be obtained. The reasonable reader of the bill of lading will therefore know that it is addressed not only to the shipper and consignee named on the bill but to a potentially wide class of third parties including banks which have issued letters of credit.
75. Since a bill of lading is a legal document, the merchant or banker to whom it is addressed will know that on some questions of interpretation he will need to consult a lawyer. But he will also expect to be able to find out certain essential things for himself. These will include the identity of the carrier. The normal bill of lading recognises this distinction by having some of its terms written or printed on the front, where the businessman or banker can readily find them without a lawyer at his elbow, and the mass of other clauses printed at the back. Of course there will be cases in which the information provided on the front will be too obscure to provide the businessman or banker with the information he expects. In such a case, he may have to ask his lawyer to see whether the question can be elucidated by plunging into the small print at the back, or, if he is a banker offered the bill of lading pursuant to a letter of credit, he may simply reject it on the ground that he cannot be expected to puzzle out the answer by reference to other parts of the document. On the other hand, if the information is clearly stated on the front, the reasonable merchant or banker would go no further. The banker, for example, will accept the bill of lading when tendered against a letter of credit as having been issued by the named carrier without examining the terms on the back.
76. As it is common general knowledge that a bill of lading is addressed to merchants and bankers as well as lawyers, the meaning which it would be given by such persons will usually also determine the meaning it would be given by any other reasonable person, including the court. The reasonable reader would not think that the bill of lading could have been intended to mean one thing to the merchant or banker and something different to the lawyer or judge.
77. The proposition that bankers do not examine the contractual terms on the back of a bill of lading has long been common general knowledge and for many years the courts have said that they were not expected to do so: see Scrutton LJ in National Bank of Egypt v Hannevig's Bank (1919) 3 LDAB 213, 214 and Salmon J. in British Imex Industries Ltd v Midland Bank Ltd  1 QB 542, 551-552. In more recent times, bankers have issued public statements to this effect in the form of the ICC Uniform Customs and Practice for Documentary Credits. Article 23 of the edition which was in force when these bills of lading were issued (UCP 500) provides that if a credit calls for a bill of lading, banks will accept a document which
78. Article 23(a)(v) states that banks will not examine the contents of the terms and conditions of carriage, that is to say, the terms printed on the back. The position is stated even more clearly in the ICC Position Paper No. 4, published on 1 September 1994 to clarify Article 23(a)(i):
79. Mr Milligan QC, who appeared for the cargo owners, said that Article 23 of UCP 500 was irrelevant because it only specified the conditions upon which a bank would accept a bill of lading as conforming to the terms of a letter of credit. That had nothing to do with the interpretation of the bill of lading as between the parties (or alleged parties) to the contract of carriage. I do not agree. It is true that the purpose of Article 23, when UCP 500 has been incorporated into the terms of a letter of credit, is to specify what will count as a conforming bill of lading. But what it also shows is that, if the conditions for identifying the carrier have been satisfied, the bank will treat the document as having identified that party as the carrier. In other words, Article 23 and the Position Paper show that if a document bears upon its face the words "ABC Co Ltd as agent for XYZ Shipping, carrier [signature]" the bank will treat it as meaning that XYZ Shipping is the carrier. Since it is common general knowledge that banks almost invariable issue letters of credit on the terms of UCP 500, those terms will be part of the background available to the reasonable reader seeking to ascertain the meaning of the bill of lading. He will know that a bank, one of the potential addressees which anyone issuing a bill of lading must have in mind, would accept it as meaning that the person named on the front as the carrier was indeed the carrier. And the reasonable reader will not think that the bill of lading could have been intended to have one meaning to a bank and another to a consignee or assignee.
80. For this purpose it does not matter whether port agents in Malaysia are likely to have heard of UCP 500. Their knowledge and views on these matters are irrelevant because, unlike UCP 500, they are not reasonably available to everyone in the class of persons to whom the document was addressed. Nor does it matter that, as appears to have been the case here, the same port agents issued other bills in different and non-conforming form: this too is not something which the reasonable addressee of these bills could be expected to know and therefore not admissible background. The construction given to the bill of lading must be objective and uniform and, in the case of the identity of the carrier, determined by an unequivocal statement on the face of the document.