Classic Maritime v Limbungan Makmur SDN BHD  EWHC 2389 (Comm)
A contract contains two modes of performance, A or B. Historically, the obligor has used mode A which becomes unavailable due to a natural disaster. If the obligor can show that it is also impossible to use mode B for reasons beyond its control, can it rely on a force majeure provision to excuse non-performance? Does it need to show it would have performed using mode A but for the mode A-disabling event? Classic Maritime v Limbungan Makmur SDN BHD  EWHC 2389 (Comm) addresses these questions and others in an area of law that is perhaps not as well-settled in all respects as some might think.
The dam burst and the COA
At 3.45pm on 5 November 2015, the worst environmental disaster in Brazilian history unfolded. A tailings dam operated by Brazilian mining company Samarco Mineracao SA (“Samarco”) collapsed. A tidal wave of 32 to 40 million cubic metres of mining waste swept across green valleys, villages and farmland.
Iron ore production at Samarco’s mine was brought to an abrupt halt. Shipments of Samarco’s iron ore pellets, hitherto shipped through Ponta Ubu in Brazil, were suspended.
Ponta Ubu was one of two ports from which the charterers, Limbungan Makmur SDN BHD (“Limbungan”), had the option to load iron ore pellets on the vessels of Classic Maritime Inc., under a COA for 59 shipments of iron ore pellets from Brazil to Malaysia between 2009 and 2017. The other load port was Tubarao, from which another Brazilian mining company, Vale SA (“Vale”), shipped iron ore pellets.
The parties’ rival positions
In the Samarco aftershock, it was Limbungan’s case that Vale experienced a surge in demand, earmarked its supply to existing customers, and left newcomers such as itself wanting. Limbungan was therefore prevented from shipping from Ponta Ubu and Tubarao due to circumstances beyond its control. This excused its failure to perform post-5 November 2015 under Clause 32 of the COA, a fairly typical force majeure or exceptions clause, which stated inter alia:
“Neither the Vessel, her Master or Owners, nor the Charterers, Shippers or Receivers shall be responsible for…failure to supply, load…cargo resulting from: Act of God…floods…landslips…accidents at mine or production facility…or any other causes beyond the Owners’, Charterers’, Shippers’ or Receivers’ control; always provided that such events directly affect the performance of either party under this Charter Party.”
Classic countered that Limbungan had an absolute and non-delegable obligation to provide cargo and had no arrangements to do so. Instead, it hoped to perform with the gratuitous support of two companies within the same broad corporate family, Lion DRI or Antara. Those companies had asked Limbungan to ship their iron ore pellets to their steel-making plants in Malaysia from Ponta Ubu since 2011, but without any contractual nexus existing between them. The bursting of the dam was thus of no legal relevance. The problem was that the now sole supplier, Vale, would not supply Limbungan or its affiliates, although matters would have been different if Limbungan had made proper efforts and pushed for a long-term supply contract.
What is more, Classic argued that Limbungan would not have performed anyway. It had failed to perform two pre-dam burst shipments as Lion DRI and Antara had not required Limbungan to carry iron ore pellets in a weak market, a state of affairs which would have continued irrespective of the dam burst. The dam burst was not a force majeure event and Classic was entitled to US$20.5 million in damages to compensate it for lost freight.
Against this, Limbungan argued that it had put its eggs in the Samarco/Ponta Ubu basket as it had exclusively shipped Samarco pellets since August 2011. Whether it had enforceable agreements with Samarco, Lion DRI or Antara was not determinative; its settled practice was clear. The obligation after the dam burst was to make new arrangements ex Tubarao, provided it was possible to do so. Clause 32 applied because it was not possible. This was an alternative modes of performance case per Warinco v Mauthner  2 Lloyd’s Rep 151, 154 in that Limbungan had opted for one mode of performance which had become unavailable. As it could not avail itself of the one remaining mode, it was excused.
Further, it was sufficient that Limbungan was prevented from performing by the dam burst. It was contrary to authority to insist that Limbungan had to show it would have performed had the dam not burst and contrary to the compensatory principle to award damages to Classic in respect of shipments which would never have occurred given the dam burst.
The judgment of Teare J.
The Court rejected Classic’s claim, and in the process made findings of wider legal significance.
- First, Classic’s reliance on the principle that a charterer who has been let down by a particular supplier cannot plead force majeure per The Mary Nour  2 Lloyd’s Rep and The Kriti Rex  Lloyd’s Rep 171 was not on point. Those cases were not concerned with alternative modes of performance, where the required performance was from Port A or Port B, but with performance from a single port (albeit one possibly served by many suppliers).
- Second, for the alternative modes of performance principle to apply, it was not necessary for Limbungan to show it had legally binding arrangements to perform from Pontu Ubu rather than Tubarao when the dam burst. What the Court had to assess were Limbungan’s “intentions or arrangements” per Moccatta J in European Grain & Shipping v J.H. Rayner  2 Lloyd's Rep. 239, which did not need to display the element of fixity posited by Classic.
- Third, Limbungan had to show that it would have performed but for the dam burst. The House of Lords decision in Bremer Handelgesellschaft v Vanden Avenne-Izegem PVBA  2 Lloyd’s Rep 109 and a string of other cases, which Limbungan said supported the general proposition that a party relying on force majeure need not show it would have performed but for the force majeure event were, in Teare J’s judgment, cases about contractual frustration provisions, which are intended to mimic the effect of common law frustration. They had no bearing on Clause 32.
- Fourth, the Court concluded that neither Limbungan nor its affiliates could have sourced cargoes from Vale ex Tubarao – a topic on which the parties’ market experts spilt much ink. That said, Limbungan could not show it would have performed but for the dam burst: Lion DRI’s steel-making business had effectively been mothballed due to weak demand, Antara had a cheaper COA of its own, and the arrangement whereby Antara had used the more expensive COA and been compensated for the freight differential by Lion DRI was moribund.
- Fifth, though Limbungan could not rely on Clause 32 and was therefore liable under Clause 32, Classic was not entitled to recover damages. This was because even if Limbungan had been able and willing to perform, the dam burst would have supervened and prevented performance, and Limbungan would have been excused by Clause 32. It would violate the compensatory principle, to award substantial damages to Classic when it would never have received performance in any event.
- Sixth, the Court rejected Classic’s case to the effect that if the dam burst was due to faulty construction or maintenance by Samarco, it was an event within the “Shipper’s [i.e. Samarco’s] control”, and thus not within Clause 32. No part of the charterers’ obligation to supply and load cargo extended to responsibility for the dam, making it unlikely the parties intended poor dam construction or maintenance (if proved) to debar Limbungan from relying on Clause 32. This is an important decision on the typical ‘beyond the control of’ provision, analysed in the sometimes misunderstood decision in The Crude Sky  EWCA Civ 905.
The case is believed to be the first authority since the Bremer line of authorities from the 1970s and early 1980s to consider whether the party relying on a force majeure or exceptions clause has also to show it would have performed but for the event relied upon to be excused from non-performance. The answer given in those cases was “no”. For the time being, the textbooks may need to be rewritten to reflect the affirmative answer to this question given by Teare J.
This gives pause for thought. Had Ponta Ubu and Tubarao both been wiped out by a meteor, so that any performance was unquestionably prevented, on one view, asking whether Limbungan could or wanted to perform would be academic. It might be said the parties intended Clause 32 to excuse Limbungan from liability in precisely such a case, particularly since Clause 32 is intended to deal with frustrating and force majeure events, and in the context of frustration, but for causation has always been irrelevant. Not only that: asking whether Limbungan would have performed but for the dam burst is conducive to a doubtful and speculative examination of what Limbungan’s intentions and arrangements would have been in a counter-factual setting, which Megaw LJ Bremer Handelgesellschaft v Vanden Avenne-Izegem PVBA  2 Lloyd’s Rep 329 cautioned against.
This also appears to be the first case where the argument has been made (by Classic) – and rejected – that the arrangements necessary to activate the alternative modes of performance principle need to be legally binding. They do not: the arrangements can have a looser, more informal character.
Finally, this case exemplifies the compensatory principle at work: if Limbungan had performed instead of breaching the COA, it would have performed with Samarco out of Ponta Ubu. The problem from Classic’s perspective is that with the intervention of the dam burst, Limbungan would have been able to claim force majeure under Clause 32 (as on this hypothesis it would have performed but for the dam burst). The outcome in both the breach and non-breach positions is therefore that Classic would not have enjoyed the benefit of contractual performance. Classic cannot be put in a better position than if the breach had not occurred.
Teare J refused permission to appeal on the ground that Classic’s proposed appeal on the application of the compensatory principle (or perhaps more accurately Classic’s case that the principle allowed it to recover substantial damages to represent loss of charter freights which in fact it could never have earned assuming Limbungan performed rather than breached the COA) had no realistic prospect of success.