Aspen Underwriting: The Supreme Court overrules on the issue of economically weaker parties in the insurance section.

I wrote earlier on the judgments at the High Court and the Court of Appeal in Aspen Underwriting v Kairos Shipping. The Supreme Court held yesterday and largely upheld the lower courts’ decisions, except for the issue of whether an economically equal party may nevertheless enjoy the benefit of the insurance section of Brussels Ia.

Reference is best made to my earlier posting for full assessment of the facts. The Supreme Court considered four issues.

Issue 1: Does the High Court have jurisdiction pursuant to the exclusive English jurisdiction clause contained in the Policy? This was mostly a factual assessment (is there a clear demonstration of consent to choice of court) which Lord Hodge for the SC held Teare J and the Court of Appeal both had absolutely right. Lord Hodge refers in support to a wealth of CJEU and English (as well as Singapore) courts on assignment and contractual rights v contractual obligations.

Issues 2 and 3: Are the Insurers’ claims against the Bank matters ‘relating to insurance’ (issue 2) within section 3 of the Regulation and if so, is the Bank entitled to rely on that section (issue 3)?

On issue 2, Teare J and the Court of Appeal had held that the Insurers’ claim against the Bank was so closely connected with the question of the Insurers’ liability to indemnify for the loss of the Vessel under the Policy that the subject matter of the claim can fairly be said to relate to insurance.

On this issue the insurers had appealed for they argued that a claim can be regarded as a matter relating to insurance only if the subject matter of the claim is, at least in substance, a breach of an obligation contained in, and required to be performed by, an insurance contract. They referred in particular to Brogsitter and also to Granarolo and Bosworth.

Lord Hodge disagreed with claimant, upholding Teare J and the CA: the need for restrictive interpretation is mentioned (at 38) and at 35 it transpires that of particular relevance in his analysis, is the very wording of the title of the insurance section: unlike all other special jurisdictional rules of interest, it does not include ‘contracts’. Further (at 36),

‘the scheme of section 3 is concerned with the rights not only of parties to an insurance contract, who are the insurer and the policyholder, but also  beneficiaries of insurance and, in the context of liability insurance, the injured party, who will generally not be parties to the insurance contract.’

At 40 he holds that in any event the Brogsitter test is met:

‘The Insurers’ claim is that there has been an insurance fraud by the Owners and the Managers for which the Bank is vicariously liable. Such a fraud would inevitably entail a breach of the insurance contract as the obligation of utmost good faith applies not only in the making of the contract but in the course of its performance.’

[Of note is that the ‘related to’ issue was discussed in Hutchinson and is at the CJEU as C-814/19, AC et al v ABC Sl as I flag in my review of Hutchinson].

However (issue 3) both Teare J and the CA eventually held that the insurance title failed to provide the bank with protection for they argued (as I noted with reference in particular to CJEU Voralsberger) that protection was available only to the weaker party in circumstances of economic imbalance between the claimant insurer and the defendant.

Here the SC disagrees and overrules. Lord Hodge’s reasons are mentioned at 43 ff, and I will not repeat them fully here. They include his view on which he is entirely right and as I have pointed out repeatedly, that recitals may be explanatory but only the rules in the Regulation have legal effect). Bobek AG’s Opinion in C-340/16 Kabeg features with force. Hofsoe is distinguished for, at 56,

‘In none of these cases where the CJEU has relied on the “weaker party” criterion to rule on applications to extend the scope of the section 3 protections beyond those parties who were clearly the policyholder, the insured, the beneficiary or the injured party, did the court call into question the entitlement of those expressly-named persons to that protection by reason of their economic power.’

That assessment is not entirely consistent for as Lord Hodge himself notes, and the CJEU acknowledges, in KABEG, Vorarlberger, Group Josi and GIE the jurisdiction of the forum actoris had been extended under articles 11(1)(b) and 13(2) to include the heirs of an injured party and also the employer who continues to pay the salary of the injured party while he was on sick leave.

All in all, it agree following Lord Hodge’s convincing review of the cases, that it is acte clair that a person which is correctly categorised as a policyholder, insured or beneficiary is entitled to the protection of section 3 of the Regulation, whatever its economic power relative to the insurer. (Even if particularly following Hofsoe the application of the section as a whole might need a more structured revisit by the CJEU). In the case at hand the Bank is the named loss payee under the Policy and therefore the “beneficiary” of that Policy (at 60).

In conclusion: Under A14 BIa the Bank must be sued in The Netherlands.

Finally, whether claims in unjust enrichment fall within article 7(2) (answered by Teare J in the negative) ‘does not arise’ (at 60). I am not entirely sure what this means: was it no longer challenged or was Teare J’s analysis on this straightforward? A different reply than that of Teare J would have required overruling Kleinwort Benson Ltd v. Glasgow City Council (No. 2) [1999] 1 AC 153 (HL), that a claim in unjust enrichment for mistake was neither a matter ‘relating to contract’ nor a matter ‘relating to tort’ for the purposes of EU private international law – an issue I discussed in my earlier posting in particular in its relationship with Rome I and II. With the SC’s refusal to entertain it, that authority therefore stands.

One does wish that the CJEU at some point have an opportunity further to clarify the insurance section and will do so in a holistic manner. The SC judgment here is one big step in the good direction.

Geert.

(Handbook of) EU Private International Law, 2nd ed. 2016, Chapter 2, Heading 2.2.11.1, Heading 2.2.11.2.

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