Case Law

Insurers bound by the small print? I should cocoa!

9 March 2021
By Joanna Grant

ABN Amro Bank N.V. -v- Royal & Sun Alliance Insurance plc and others [2021] EWHC 442 (Comm)

In the latest in a line of policyholder-friendly judgments, this recent ruling from the Commercial Court confirms that underwriters will be bound by the terms of policies they enter into whether they have read them or not.

The court found no grounds for departing from the important principle of English law that a person who signs a document knowing that it is intended to have legal effect is generally bound by its terms. Any erosion of that principle, which unpins the whole of commercial life, it was noted, would have serious repercussions far beyond the business community.

A foregone conclusion perhaps? Indeed the judge commented that prior to this case he would have regarded as unsurprising the proposition that underwriters should read the terms of the contract to which they put their names. What was it then that spurred the 14 defendant underwriters to seek to argue the contrary, apparently oblivious to the irony of their taking a point which routinely falls on deaf ears when more commonly made by policyholders unaware of implications of the small print for their claims?

In brief, the claimant bank, ABN Amro, was seeking an indemnity of £33.5 million under a policy placed in the marine market that unusually, and perhaps unprecedentedly, contained a clause the effect of which was to provide the equivalent of trade credit insurance, and not simply an indemnity for physical loss and damage to the cargo. As such, when the cargo, which in this instance comprised various cocoa products, was sold at a loss following the collapse of two of the leading players in the cocoa market and the default by them on their credit facility, the bank incurred losses that it contended were covered by the policy.

The underwriters submitted that the non-standard nature of this clause was such that clear words would have been required to widen the scope of cover beyond physical loss and damage, given the presumption that marine cargo insurance is limited to such loss.  The court however found that, applying the well-established principles of legal construction, the wording of the clause was clear, and therefore its natural meaning should not be rejected simply because it was an imprudent term for the underwriters to have agreed, given the adverse commercial consequences for them.

The underwriters further submitted that they had not read the policy, and that the particular wording and its effect should have been brought to their attention as it was unfair to expect a marine cargo underwriter to understand the purpose of the clause. The bank contended that it was “frankly bizarre” for the underwriters to be essentially arguing that they, as leading participants in the London insurance market had to be told what terms were contained in the written policy wording presented to them and what those terms meant. The court agreed, finding that the underwriters could not properly allege that the clause was not disclosed to them when it was there in the policy to which they subscribed, and that further, as the bank contended, the insured was under no duty to offer the insurer advice. The insurer was presumed to know its own business and to be able to form its own judgment on the risk as it was presented.

Many other principles of insurance law were raised by this case and are covered in the wide-ranging 263-page judgment including (i) the applicable principles of legal construction; (ii) the incorporation and impact of a non-avoidance clause in the policy (it prevented the insurers from repudiating the contract for non-disclosure or misrepresentation in the absence of fraud); (iii) whether the underwriters had affirmed the policy by serving a defence that was consistent with a position that recognised its continuing validity (they had); (iv) whether mere negligence, as opposed to recklessness, was sufficient to breach a reasonable precautions clause in the policy (it was not); and (v) the scope of a broker’s duty to procure cover the meets the insured’s requirements and protects it against the risk of litigation (which duty had been breached and would have led to a liability on the part of the broker had the claims against the underwriters not succeeded).

However, the key takeaway for insurers, policyholders and commercial contracting parties alike is that a court will not step in to relieve a party of the adverse consequences of a bad bargain: the purpose of interpretation is to identify what the parties have agreed, not what the court thinks that they should have agreed. In other words, it always pays to read the small print.

Joanna Grant is a Partner at Fenchurch Law.