Knock for knock - allocation or evasion of liability?

17 Nov 2017
Author: Arnavi Panda, Legal Advisor at GMS

Risk assessment and risk transfer are fundamental to every commercial contract. In English law, in the absence of any contract to the contrary, liability is traditionally assessed on the basis of fault. Emphasis should be laid on the phrase “in the absence of any contract to the contrary”. A knock for knock clause is one such regime whereby the parties can contractually agree that the liability and/or the losses lie where they fall irrespective of the fault of either of the parties and without any further recourse against one another. The English Courts have upheld the validity of the knock for knock liability clause describing it to be “a crude but workable allocation of risk and responsibility” and would normally seek to give effect to the “natural and ordinary” meaning to the agreement between the parties so long as it is not repugnant to basic principle of contract. 

Knock for knock clauses are a common feature in most maritime and offshore contracts adopted in numerous standard form contracts published by BIMCO. This article focuses on the knock for knock clause in the BIMCO Towcon 2008 contract.  The knock for knock clause in a standard BIMCO Towcon appears in Clause 25 which essentially seeks to allocate risk and liability between the parties where each party agrees to bear responsibility for and indemnify the other party for any loss or damage sustained to their respective property i.e. either the tug in the case of the tug owner or the tow in the case of the Hirer and any injury or death of their own (and their contractors and subcontractors) employees, irrespective of fault. While the rationale behind the knock for knock clause was to protect contractors from accepting liability for a client’s property that might involve significant high risks and to avoid the need of overlapping insurance coverage, and even though the liability regime has developed since 1970s from the time of it’s origin, the primary debate of this regime still focuses on whether the knock for knock regime exempts a party to the contract from gross negligence, material breach of performance of contract or willful misconduct. 

This is particularly a cause of concern in the ship breaking and recycling market where the Hirer will be seen to waive off his rights to claim any damage for damage sustained to the physical property of the tow i.e. the Vessel and/or any other asset that is often towed from one destination to the recycling yard depending upon the condition of the vessel to sail on her own power or in need of being towed. Such waiver includes but is not limited to pillage of material onboard the Vessel which might be of commercial value at the end destination i.e. the recycling yard where every part of the Vessel is either dismantled or reused. Furthermore, it is important to note that gross negligence is not recognized as a distinct concept with no set defined meaning in English law and is open to the interpretation of the Court from a case to case basis. Parties are only required to observe a minimum level of due diligence in conducting the towage operation based on the precedent established in the landmark judgment of ATurtle [2008] EWHC 3034 and therefore in the absence of a specific provision in the contract must ensure to carefully word such knock for knock clauses in such contracts. Under English law, courts will usually give preference to enforce the contractual terms agreed to between the parties excluding negligence, gross negligence, material breach of contract, consequential losses or willful misconduct provided that the wording used of such exclusion is clear. Such amended clauses normally require the assessment and approval of the tug owners and the Hirer’s underwriters especially in the case of Towcons where the damages suffered may very well be over the cost of the asset. A clearly drafted knock for knock provision coupled with a complimenting insurance cover is therefore vital and needs particular attention when negotiating a towcon and assessing the potential recourses in the event of defaults, negligence, misconduct or material breach of contract amongst other primary terms of the contract. 

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