LAW REPORT / Contract repudiation accepted by inaction

v 28 June 1996
Vitol SA v Norelf Ltd; House of Lords (Lord Mackay of Clashfern, Lord Chancellor, Lord Griffiths, Lord Nolan, Lord Steyn, Lord Hoffmann) 20 June 1996

An aggrieved party could as a matter of law accept a repudiation of a contract merely by himself failing to perform the contract. Whether in any particular case he had done so must depend on the circumstances.

The House of Lords allowed an appeal by the sellers, Norelf Ltd, reversed the decision of the Court of Appeal ([1996] QB 108) and restored the decision of Mr Justice Phillips ([1994] 1 WLR 1390) affirming an arbitration ruling against the buyers, Vitol SA.

The dispute arose out of a contract of 11 February 1991, by which Norelf sold to Vitol a cargo of propane c.i.f. north-west Europe to be shipped from the United States. Delivery of the cargo to the ship was to take place from 1 to 7 March. The sellers were to tender the bill of lading to the buyers promptly after loading. On 8 March the buyers telexed the sellers as follows:

It was a condition of the contract that

delivery would be effected 1-7

March 1991 . . . We are advised that the vessel is not likely to complete loading now until some time on 9 March, well outside the agreed contractual period. In view of the breach of this condition we must reject the cargo and repudiate the contract.

The buyers never retracted nor attempted to retract their repudiation of the contract. The sellers did nothing to affirm or perform the contract. Instead they resold the cargo at a loss. They then claimed against the buyers US$950,000 in damages, being the difference between the original contract price and the resale price. The premise of the claim was that they had accepted the buyers' repudiation.

The arbitrator held that the tenor of the rejection telex was such that the failure of the sellers to take any further step to perform the contract which was apparent to the buyers constituted sufficient communication of acceptance of the buyers' repudiation.

Jeremy Cooke QC and Andrew Wales (Clyde & Co) for the buyers; Andrew Popplewell and Miss N. Davis (Holman Fenwick & Willan) for the sellers.

Lord Steyn said it was established law that where a party had repudiated a contract the aggrieved party had an election to accept the repudiation or to reaffirm the contract. Acceptance of a repudiation required no particular form; it was sufficient that the communication or conduct clearly and unequivocally conveyed to the repudiating party that the aggrieved party was treating the contract as at an end. The aggrieved party need not notify the repudiating party of his election to treat the contract as at an end; it was sufficient that the fact of the election came to the repudiating party's attention.

The issue here was whether non-performance of an obligation was ever as a matter of law capable of constituting an act of acceptance. One could not generalise on the point. It all depended on the particular contractual relationship and the particular circumstances of the case. Like Phillips J, his Lordship was satisfied that a failure to perform might sometimes signify to a repudiating party an election by the aggrieved party to treat the contract as at an end.

The Court of Appeal had been strongly influenced by an obiter dictum of Kerr LJ in State Trading Corp of India Ltd v Golodetz Ltd [1989] 2 Lloyd's Rep 277 at 286, that

saying and doing nothing at all, other than a continuing failure to perform, cannot constitute an acceptance of a repudiation even if the grounds for such an acceptance then exist.

In his Lordship's opinion that passage, if intended to enunciate a general rule, went too far. A continuing failure to perform would necessarily be equivocal; but his Lordship disagreed with the view of Nourse LJ in the Court of Appeal ([1996] QB 106 at 116-117) that failure to perform a contractual obligation was necessarily and always equivocal.

Sometimes in the practical world of businessmen an omission to act might be as pregnant with meaning as a positive declaration.

Paul Magrath, Barrister