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Contract, Liabilities for Breach

Limitation Clauses

Exceptions in Charterparties

Exclusion of Liability for Negligence


Exclusion Clauses
Last updated: 28-Nov-2015

Burton & Co v English & Co (1883) 12 QBD 218, per Bowen LJ at 222:

There is … another rule of construction which one would bring to bear upon this charterparty, and that is, that one must see if this stipulation which we have got to construe is introduced by way of exception or in favour of one of the parties to the contract, and if so, we must take care not to give it an extension beyond what is fairly necessary, because those who wish to introduce words in a contract in order to shield themselves ought to do so in clear words.

Sze Hai Tong Bank Ltd. v Rambler Cycle Co. Ltd [1959] AC 576, per Lord Denning:

The exemption, on the face of it, could hardly be more comprehensive, and it is contended that it is wide enough to absolve the shipping company from responsibility for the act of which the Rambler Cycle Company complains, that is to say, the delivery of the goods to a person who, to their knowledge, was not entitled to receive them. If the exemption clause upon its true construction absolved the shipping company from an act such as that, it seems that by parity of reasoning they would have been absolved if they had given the goods away to some passer-by or had burnt them or thrown them into the sea. If it had been suggested to the parties that the condition exempted the shipping company in such a case, they would both have said: "Of course not." There is, therefore, an implied limitation on the clause, which cuts down the extreme width of it: and, as a matter of construction, their Lordships decline to attribute to it the unreasonable effect contended for.

Suisse Atlantique Societe d'Armement Maritime SA v NV Rotterdamsche Kolen Centrale [1966] 1 Lloyd’s Rep. 529 per Lord Wilberforce:

I treat the words "exceptions clause" as covering broadly such clauses in a contract as profess to exclude or limit, either quantitatively or as to the time within which action must be taken, the right of the injured party to bring an action for damages. Such a clause must, ex hypothesi, reflect the contemplation of the parties that a breach of contract, or what apart from the clause would be a breach of contract, may be committed, otherwise the clause would not be there; but the question remains open in any case whether there is a limit to the type of breach which they have in mind. One may safely say that the parties cannot, in a contract, have contemplated that the clause should have so wide an ambit as in effect to deprive one party’s stipulations of all contractual force: to do so would be to reduce the contract to a mere declaration of intent. To this extent it may be correct to say that there is a rule of law against the application of an exceptions clause to a particular type of breach. But short of this it must be a question of contractual intention whether a particular breach is covered or not and the courts are entitled to insist, as they do, that the more radical the breach the clearer must the language be if it is to be covered.

Photo Production Ltd v Securicor Transport Ltd. [1980] 1 All ER 556, per Lord Diplock at page 567:

… an exclusion clause is one which excludes or modifies an obligation, whether primary, general secondary or anticipatory secondary, that would otherwise arise under the contract by implication of law. Parties are free to agree to whatever exclusion or modification of all three types of obligations they please within the limits that the agreement must retain the legal characteristics of a contract and must not offend against the equitable rule against penalties, that is to say, it must not impose on the breaker of a primary obligation a general secondary obligation to pay to the other party a sum of money that is manifestly intended to be in excess of the amount which would fully compensate the other party for the loss sustained by him in consequence of the breach of the primary obligation. Since the presumption is that the parties by entering into the contract intended to accept the implied obligations exclusion clauses are to be construed strictly and the degree of strictness appropriate to be applied to their construction may properly depend upon the extent to which they involve departure from the implied obligations. Since the obligations implied by law in a commercial contract are those which, by judicial consensus over the years or by Parliament in passing a statute, have been regarded as obligations which a reasonable businessman would realise that he was accepting when he entered into a contract of a particular kind, the court’s view of the reasonableness of any departure from the implied obligations which would be involved in construing the express words of an exclusion clause in one sense that they are capable of bearing rather than another, is a relevant consideration in deciding what meaning the words were intended by the parties to bear. But this does not entitle the court to reject the exclusion clause, however unreasonable the court itself may think it is, if the words are clear and fairly susceptible of one meaning only.

My Lords, the reports are full of cases in which what would appear to be very strained constructions have been placed upon exclusion clauses, mainly in what today would be called consumer contracts and contracts of adhesion. As Lord Wilberforce has pointed out, any need for this kind of judicial distortion of the English language has been banished by Parliament’s having made these kinds of contracts subject to the Unfair Contract Terms Act 1977. In commercial contracts negotiated between businessmen capable of looking after their own interests and of deciding how risks inherent in the performance of various kinds of contract can be most economically borne (generally by insurance), it is, in my view, wrong to place a strained construction upon words in an exclusion clause which are clear and fairly susceptible of one meaning only even after due allowance has been made for the presumption in favour of the implied primary and secondary obligations.

The modern approach to the law relating to exclusion clauses has been summarised in judgment of Mrs Justice Carr in Fujitsu Services Ltd v IBM United Kingdom Ltd [2014] EWHC 752 (TCC) at paras 25-28:

25. As for exclusion and limitation of liability clauses specifically, it is generally for the party seeking to rely on the exemption or limitation of liability clause, here IBM, to show that the clause, on its true construction, covers the obligation or liability which it purports to restrict or exclude. If there is an exception to the exemption, then the burden rests upon the claimant to establish that his case falls within the exception. But the form is not conclusive and the matter is in every case a question of construction of the instrument as a whole.

26. There is no reason to approach the exercise of construing an exemption or limitation of liability clause in any way different to any other term in a contract. In Tradigrain SA v Intertek Testing Services (ITS) Canada Ltd [2007] EWCA Civ 154 Moore-Bick LJ stated at paragraph 46:

It is certainly true that English law has traditionally taken a restrictive approach to the construction of exemption clauses and clauses limiting liability for breaches of contract and other wrongful acts. However, in recent years it has been increasingly willing to recognise that parties to commercial contracts are entitled to apportion the risk of loss as they see fit and that provisions which limit or exclude liability must be construed in the same way as other terms : see for example Photo Production Ltd v Securicor Ltd …. [above]

28. In Modern Engineering (Bristol) Ltd v Gilbert-Ash (Northern) Ltd [1974] AC 689 at 717 Lord Diplock stated:

It is, of course, open to parties to a contract for sale of goods or for work and labour or for both to exclude by express agreement a remedy for its breach which would otherwise arise by operation of law or such remedy may be excluded by usage binding upon the parties…. But in construing such a contract one starts with the presumption that neither party intends to abandon any remedies for its breach arising by operation of law, and clear express words must be used in order to rebut this presumption.


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