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Judgments - Transfield Shipping Inc V Mercator Shipping Inc


SESSION 2007-08

[2008] UKHL 48

on appeal from: [2007] EWCA Civ 901




Transfield Shipping Inc (Appellants) v Mercator Shipping Inc (Respondents)

Appellate Committee

Lord Hoffmann

Lord Hope of Craighead

Lord Rodger of Earlsferry

Lord Walker of Gestingthorpe

Baroness Hale of Richmond



Dominic Kendrick QC

Benjamin Parker

(Instructed by Swinnerton Moore LLP)


Simon Croall QC

Ruth Hosking

(Instructed by Bentleys Stokes & Lowless)

Hearing date:

1 MAY 2008






Transfield Shipping Inc (Appellants) v Mercator Shipping Inc (Respondents)

[2008] UKHL 48


My Lords,

1.  The Achilleas is a single-decker bulk carrier of some 69,000 dwt built in 1994. By a time charter dated 22 January 2003 the owners let her to the charterers for about five to seven months at a daily hire rate of US$13,500. By an addendum dated 12 September 2003 the parties fixed the vessel for a further five to seven months at a daily rate of US$16,750. The latest date for redelivery was 2 May 2004.

2.  By April 2004, market rates had more than doubled compared with the previous September. On 20 April 2004 the charterers gave notice of redelivery between 30 April and 2 May 2004. On the following day, the owners fixed the vessel for a new four to six month hire to another charterer, following on from the current charter, at a daily rate of US$39,500. The latest date for delivery to the new charterers, after which they were entitled to cancel, was 8 May 2004.

3.  With less than a fortnight of the charter to run, the charterers fixed the vessel under a subcharter to carry coals from Quingdao in China across the Yellow Sea to discharge at two Japanese ports, Tobata and Oita. If this voyage could not reasonably have been expected to allow redelivery by 2 May 2004, the owners could probably have refused to perform it: see Torvald Klaveness A/S v Arni Maritime Corpn (The Gregos) [1995] 1 Lloyd’s Rep 1. But they made no objection. The vessel completed loading at Quingdao on 24 April. It discharged at Tobata, went on to Oita, but was unfortunately delayed there and not redelivered to the owners until 11 May.

4.  By 5 May it had become clear to everyone that the vessel would not be available to the new charterers before the cancelling date of 8 May. By that time, rates had fallen again. In return for an extension of the cancellation date to 11 May, the owners agreed to reduce the rate of hire for the new fixture to $31,500 a day.

5.  The owners claimed damages for the loss of the difference between the original rate and the reduced rate over the period of the fixture. At US$8,000 a day, that came to US$1,364,584.37. The charterers said that the owners were not entitled to damages calculated by reference to their dealings with the new charterers and that they were entitled only to the difference between the market rate and the charter rate for the nine days during which they were deprived of the use of the ship. That came to $158,301.17.

6.  The arbitrators, by a majority, found for the owners. They said that the loss on the new fixture fell within the first rule in Hadley v Baxendale (1854) 9 Exch 341, 354 as arising “naturally, ie according to the usual course of things, from such breach of contract itself". It fell within that rule because it was damage “of a kind which the [charterer], when he made the contract, ought to have realised was not unlikely to result from a breach of contract [by delay in redelivery]": see Lord Reid in C Czarnikow Ltd v Koufos (The Heron II) [1969] 1 AC 350, 382-383. The dissenting arbitrator did not deny that a charterer would have known that the owners would very likely enter into a following fixture during the course of the charter and that late delivery might cause them to lose it. But he said that a reasonable man in the position of the charterers would not have understood that he was assuming liability for the risk of the type of loss in question. The general understanding in the shipping market was that liability was restricted to the difference between the market rate and the charter rate for the overrun period and “any departure from this rule [is] likely to give rise to a real risk of serious commercial uncertainty which the industry as a whole would regard as undesirable.”

7.  The majority arbitrators, in their turn, did not deny that the general understanding in the industry was that liability was so limited. They said (at para 17):

“The charterers submitted that if they had asked their lawyers or their Club what damages they would be liable for if the vessel was redelivered late, the answer would have been that they would be liable for the difference between the market rate and the charter rate for the period of the late delivery. We agree that lawyers would have given such an answer".

8.  But the majority said that this was irrelevant. A broker “in a commercial situation” would have said that the “not unlikely” results arising from late delivery would include missing dates for a subsequent fixture, a dry docking or the sale of the vessel. Therefore, as a matter of law, damages for loss of these types was recoverable. The understanding of shipping lawyers was wrong.

9.  On appeal from the arbitrators, Christopher Clarke J [2007] 1 Lloyd’s Rep 19 and the Court of Appeal (Ward, Tuckey and Rix LJJ) [2007] 2 Lloyd’s Rep 555 upheld the majority decision. The case therefore raises a fundamental point of principle in the law of contractual damages: is the rule that a party may recover losses which were foreseeable (“not unlikely”) an external rule of law, imposed upon the parties to every contract in default of express provision to the contrary, or is it a prima facie assumption about what the parties may be taken to have intended, no doubt applicable in the great majority of cases but capable of rebuttal in cases in which the context, surrounding circumstances or general understanding in the relevant market shows that a party would not reasonably have been regarded as assuming responsibility for such losses?

10.  Before I come to this point of principle, I should say something about the authorities upon which the understanding of shipping lawyers was based. There is no case in which the question now in issue has been raised. But that in itself may be significant. This cannot have been the first time that freight rates have been volatile. There must have been previous cases in which late redelivery caused the loss of a profitable following fixture. But there is no reported case in which such a claim has been made. Instead, there has been a uniform series of dicta over many years in which judges have said or assumed that the damages for late delivery are the difference between the charter rate and the market rate: see for examples Lord Denning MR in Alma Shipping Corpn of Monrovia v Mantovani (The Dione) [1975] 1 Lloyd’s Rep 115, 117-118; Lord Denning MR in Arta Shipping Co Ltd v Thai Europe Tapioca Service Ltd (The Johnny) [1977] 2 Lloyd’s Rep 1, 2; Bingham LJ in Hyundai Merchant Marine Co Ltd v Gesuri Chartering Co Ltd (The Peonia) [1991] 1 Lloyd’s Rep 100, 118. Textbooks have said the same: see Scrutton on Charterparties 20th ed (1996), pp 348-349; Wilford and others Time Charters 5th ed (2003), at para 4.20. Nowhere is there a suggestion of even a theoretical possibility of damages for the loss of a following fixture.

11.  The question of principle has been extensively discussed in the literature. Recent articles by Adam Kramer (“An Agreement-Centred Approach to Remoteness and Contract Damages”) in Cohen and McKendrick (ed), Comparative Remedies for Breach of Contract (2004) pp 249-286 Andrew Tettenborn (“Hadley v Baxendale Foreseeability: a Principle Beyond its Sell-by Date) in (2007) 23 Journal of Contract Law 120-147) and Andrew Robertson (“The basis of the remoteness rule in contract”) (2008) 28 Legal Studies 172-196) are particularly illuminating. They show that there is a good deal of support in the authorities and academic writings for the proposition that the extent of a party’s liability for damages is founded upon the interpretation of the particular contract; not upon the interpretation of any particular language in the contract, but (as in the case of an implied term) upon the interpretation of the contract as a whole, construed in its commercial setting. Professor Robertson considers this approach somewhat artificial, since there is seldom any helpful evidence about the extent of the risks the particular parties would have thought they were accepting. I agree that cases of departure from the ordinary foreseeability rule based on individual circumstances will be unusual, but limitations on the extent of liability in particular types of contract arising out of general expectations in certain markets, such as banking and shipping, are likely to be more common. There is, I think, an analogy with the distinction which Lord Cross of Chelsea drew in Liverpool City Council v Irwin [1977] AC 239, 257-258 between terms implied into all contracts of a certain type and the implication of a term into a particular contract.

12.  It seems to me logical to found liability for damages upon the intention of the parties (objectively ascertained) because all contractual liability is voluntarily undertaken. It must be in principle wrong to hold someone liable for risks for which the people entering into such a contract in their particular market, would not reasonably be considered to have undertaken.

13.  The view which the parties take of the responsibilities and risks they are undertaking will determine the other terms of the contract and in particular the price to be paid. Anyone asked to assume a large and unpredictable risk will require some premium in exchange. A rule of law which imposes liability upon a party for a risk which he reasonably thought was excluded gives the other party something for nothing. And as Willes J said in British Columbia Saw Mill Co Ltd v Nettleship (1868) LR 3 CP 499, 508:

“I am disposed to take the narrow view, that one of two contracting parties ought not to be allowed to obtain an advantage which he has not paid for.”

14.  In their submissions to the House, the owners said that the “starting point” was that damages were designed to put the innocent party, so far as it is possible, in the position as if the contract had been performed: see Robinson v Harman (1848) 1 Exch 850, 855. However, in Banque Bruxelles Lambert SA v Eagle Star Insurance Co Ltd (sub nom South Australia Asset Management Corpn v York Montague Ltd) [1997] AC 191, 211, I said (with the concurrence of the other members of the House):

“I think that this was the wrong place to begin. Before one can consider the principle on which one should calculate the damages to which a plaintiff is entitled as compensation for loss, it is necessary to decide for what kind of loss he is entitled to compensation. A correct description of the loss for which the valuer is liable must precede any consideration of the measure of damages.”

15.  In other words, one must first decide whether the loss for which compensation is sought is of a “kind” or “type” for which the contract-breaker ought fairly to be taken to have accepted responsibility. In the South Australia case the question was whether a valuer, who had (in breach of an implied term to exercise reasonable care and skill) negligently advised his client bank that property which it proposed to take as security for a loan was worth a good deal more than its actual market value, should be liable not only for losses attributable to the deficient security but also for further losses attributable to a fall in the property market. The House decided that he should not be liable for this kind of loss:

“In the case of an implied contractual duty, the nature and extent of the liability is defined by the term which the law implies. As in the case of any implied term, the process is one of construction of the agreement as a whole in its commercial setting. The contractual duty to provide a valuation and the known purpose of that valuation compel the conclusion that the contract includes a duty of care. The scope of the duty, in the sense of the consequences for which the valuer is responsible, is that which the law regards as best giving effect to the express obligations assumed by the valuer: neither cutting them down so that the lender obtains less than he was reasonably entitled to expect, nor extending them so as to impose on the valuer a liability greater than he could reasonably have thought he was undertaking.” (p 212)

16.  What is true of an implied contractual duty (to take reasonable care in the valuation) is equally true of an express contractual duty (to redeliver the ship on the appointed day). In both cases, the consequences for which the contracting party will be liable are those which “the law regards as best giving effect to the express obligations assumed” and “[not] extending them so as to impose on the [contracting party] a liability greater than he could reasonably have thought he was undertaking".

17.  The effect of the South Australia case was to exclude from liability the damages attributable to a fall in the property market notwithstanding that those losses were foreseeable in the sense of being “not unlikely” (property values go down as well as up) and had been caused by the negligent valuation in the sense that, but for the valuation, the bank would not have lent at all and there was no evidence to show that it would have lost its money in some other way. It was excluded on the ground that it was outside the scope of the liability which the parties would reasonably have considered that the valuer was undertaking.

18.  That seems to me in accordance with the careful way in which Robert Goff J stated the principle in Satef-Huttenes Albertus SpA v Paloma Tercera Shipping Co SA (The Pegase) [1981] Lloyd’s Rep 175, 183, where the emphasis is upon what a reasonable person would have considered to be the extent of his responsibility:

“The test appears to be: have the facts in question come to the defendant’s knowledge in such circumstances that a reasonable person in the shoes of the defendant would, if he had considered the matter at the time of making the contract, have contemplated that, in the event of a breach by him, such facts were to be taken into account when considering his responsibility for loss suffered by the plaintiff as a result of such breach.”

19.  A similar approach was taken by the Court of Appeal in Mulvenna v Royal Bank of Scotland plc [2003] EWCA Civ 1112, mentioned by Professor Robertson in the article to which I have referred. This was an application to strike out a claim for damages for the loss of profits which the claimant said he would have made if the bank had complied with its agreement to provide him with funds for a property development. The Court of Appeal held that even on the assumption that the bank knew of the purpose for which the funds were required and that it was foreseeable that he would suffer loss of profit if he did not receive them, the damages were not recoverable. Sir Anthony Evans said:

“The authorities to which we were referred…demonstrate that the concept of reasonable foreseeability is not a complete guide to the circumstances in which damages are recoverable as a matter of law. Even if the loss was reasonably foreseeable as a consequence of the breach of duty in question (or of contract, for the same principles apply), it may nevertheless be regarded as ‘too remote a consequence’ or as not a consequence at all, and the damages claim is disallowed. In effect, the chain of consequences is cut off as a matter of law, either because it is regarded as unreasonable to impose liability for that consequence of the breach (The Pegase [1981] 1 Lloyd’s Rep 175 Robert Goff J), or because the scope of the duty is limited so as to exclude it (Banque Bruxelles SA v. Eagle Star [1997] AC 191), or because as a matter of commonsense the breach cannot be said to have caused the loss, although it may have provided the opportunity for it to occur…”

20.  By way of explanation for why in such a case liability for lost profits is excluded, Professor Robertson (at p 183) offers what seem to me to be some plausible reasons:

“It may be considered unjust that the bank should be held liable for the loss of profits simply because the bank knew of the proposed development at the time the refinancing agreement was made. The imposition of such a burden on the bank may be considered unjust because it is inconsistent with commercial practice for a bank to accept such a risk in a transaction of this type, or because the quantum of the liability is disproportionate to the scale of the transaction or the benefit the bank stood to receive.”

21.  It is generally accepted that a contracting party will be liable for damages for losses which are unforeseeably large, if loss of that type or kind fell within one or other of the rules in Hadley v Baxendale: see, for example, Staughton J in Transworld Oil Ltd v North Bay Shipping Corpn (The Rio Claro) [1987] Lloyd’s Rep 173, 175 and Jackson v Royal Bank of Scotland plc [2005] 1 WLR 377. That is generally an inclusive principle: if losses of that type are foreseeable, damages will include compensation for those losses, however large. But the South Australia and Mulvenna cases show that it may also be an exclusive principle and that a party may not be liable for foreseeable losses because they are not of the type or kind for which he can be treated as having assumed responsibility.

22.  What is the basis for deciding whether loss is of the same type or a different type? It is not a question of Platonist metaphysics. The distinction must rest upon some principle of the law of contract. In my opinion, the only rational basis for the distinction is that it reflects what would have been reasonable and have been regarded by the contracting party as significant for the purposes of the risk he was undertaking. In Victoria Laundry (Windsor) Ltd v Newman Industries Ltd [1949] 2 KB 528, where the plaintiffs claimed for loss of the profits from their laundry business because of late delivery of a boiler, the Court of Appeal did not regard “loss of profits from the laundry business” as a single type of loss. They distinguished (at p 543) losses from “particularly lucrative dyeing contracts” as a different type of loss which would only be recoverable if the defendant had sufficient knowledge of them to make it reasonable to attribute to him acceptance of liability for such losses. The vendor of the boilers would have regarded the profits on these contracts as a different and higher form of risk than the general risk of loss of profits by the laundry.

23.  If, therefore, one considers what these parties, contracting against the background of market expectations found by the arbitrators, would reasonably have considered the extent of the liability they were undertaking, I think it is clear that they would have considered losses arising from the loss of the following fixture a type or kind of loss for which the charterer was not assuming responsibility. Such a risk would be completely unquantifiable, because although the parties would regard it as likely that the owners would at some time during the currency of the charter enter into a forward fixture, they would have no idea when that would be done or what its length or other terms would be. If it was clear to the owners that the last voyage was bound to overrun and put the following fixture at risk, it was open to them to refuse to undertake it. What this shows is that the purpose of the provision for timely redelivery in the charterparty is to enable the ship to be at the full disposal of the owner from the redelivery date. If the charterer’s orders will defeat this right, the owner may reject them. If the orders are accepted and the last voyage overruns, the owner is entitled to be paid for the overrun at the market rate. All this will be known to both parties. It does not require any knowledge of the owner’s arrangements for the next charter. That is regarded by the market as being, as the saying goes, res inter alios acta.

24.  The findings of the majority arbitrators shows that they considered their decision to be contrary to what would have been the expectations of the parties, but dictated by the rules in Hadley v Baxendale as explained in The Heron II [1969] 1 AC 350. But in my opinion these rules are not so inflexible; they are intended to give effect to the presumed intentions of the parties and not to contradict them.

25.  The owners submit that the question of whether the damage is too remote is a question of fact on which the arbitrators have found in their favour. It is true that the question of whether the damage was foreseeable is a question of fact: see Monarch Steamship Co Ltd v Karlshamns Oljefabriker (A/B) [1949] AC 196. But the question of whether a given type of loss is one for which a party assumed contractual responsibility involves the interpretation of the contract as a whole against its commercial background, and this, like all questions of interpretation, is a question of law.

26.  The owners say that the parties are entirely at liberty to insert an express term excluding consequential loss if they want to do so. Some standard forms of charter do. I suppose it can be said of many disputes over interpretation, especially over implied terms, that the parties could have used express words or at any rate expressed themselves more clearly than they have done. But, as I have indicated, the implication of a term as a matter of construction of the contract as a whole in its commercial context and the implication of the limits of damages liability seem to me to involve the application of essentially the same techniques of interpretation. In both cases, the court is engaged in construing the agreement to reflect the liabilities which the parties may reasonably be expected to have assumed and paid for. It cannot decline this task on the ground that the parties could have spared it the trouble by using clearer language. In my opinion, the findings of the arbitrators and the commercial background to the agreement are sufficient to make it clear that the charterer cannot reasonably be regarded as having assumed the risk of the owner’s loss of profit on the following charter. I would therefore allow the appeal.


My Lords,

27.  My initial impression at the end of the excellent argument with which we were presented by counsel on both sides was that, on the facts found proved by the majority arbitrators, this appeal must fail. But, having had the benefit of reading in draft the opinions of my noble and learned friends Lord Hoffmann, Lord Rodger of Earlsferry and Lord Walker of Gestingthorpe, I have come to the conclusion that their decision was based on an error of law and that the view of this case that was taken by the minority arbitrator was right.

28.  The majority arbitrators based their approach on their understanding of the test of remoteness as explained in The Heron II [1969] 1 AC 350, and in particular by Lord Reid at pp 382-383, as being to ask whether the loss in question was

“of a kind which the defendant, when he made the contract, ought to have realised was not unlikely to result from [the] breach.”

This had the result, as they put it, that the parties’ knowledge of the markets within which they operated at the date of the addendum which extended the original charter period was more than sufficient for the loss claimed to be within their contemplation. Counsel for the charterers had agreed in exchanges with members of the tribunal that the “not unlikely” results arising from the late delivery of the vessel would include missing dates for a subsequent fixture. The majority then asked themselves what was within the contemplation of the parties as a not unlikely result of a breach which resulted in missing such a date, bearing in mind that it was agreed that the market rates for tonnage go up and down, sometimes quite rapidly. They answered this question in the owners’ favour. On the facts, they said, the need to adjust the relevant dates for the subsequent employment of the vessel through the revised terms agreed with the new charterers was within the contemplation of the parties as a not unlikely result of the breach. It might be that the precise amount of the loss could be seriously affected by market factors such as a sharp drop of the rate for the particular type of vessel during the relevant period. But the type of loss was readily identifiable.