The "Reecon Wolf"

CourtHigh Court (Singapore)
JudgeBelinda Ang Saw Ean J
Judgment Date31 January 2012
Neutral Citation[2012] SGHC 22
Citation[2012] SGHC 22
Docket NumberAdmiralty in Rem No. 157 of 2010 (Registrar’s Appeal No. 94 of 2011)
Hearing Date08 July 2011,28 April 2011,26 May 2011,07 July 2011,06 July 2011
Published date01 February 2012
Plaintiff CounselJohn Seow and Vellayappan Bala (Rajah & Tann LLP)
Defendant CounselS Mohan and Bernard Yee (Incisive Law LLC)
Subject MatterAdmiralty,Conflict of Laws,Forum non conveniens
Belinda Ang Saw Ean J: Introduction

This Registrar’s Appeal No 94 of 2011 (“RA 94”) was from the decision of the Assistant Registrar refusing to stay an admiralty action between foreigners arising from a collision between foreign vessels of different nationalities in the Straits of Malacca.

In Rem Proceedings: A Chronology

The plaintiff’s vessel, the Capt Stefanos, was in collision with the defendant’s vessel, the Reecon Wolf, on 21st August 2010 at 1748 hours in the Straits of Malacca. The defendant commenced an in rem action in the High Court of Malaya at Malacca and arrested the plaintiff’s vessel, the Capt Stefanos, on 24 August 2010. The plaintiff secured her release by providing security in the form of a letter of undertaking furnished by North of England P&I Club Association Ltd. The Capt Stefanos was released from arrest in Malacca on 30 August 2010. For ease of reference, the short title of the defendant’s in rem action against the Capt Stefanos is Admiralty in Rem No. 27-1-2010 (“the Malaysian Action”),

The plaintiff wishing to found jurisdiction in Singapore arrested the Reecon Wolf whilst she was here. Admiralty in Rem No 157 of 2010 was commenced on 26 August 2010 (“the Singapore Action”). On the same day, the in rem writ was served and the Reecon Wolf was arrested in Singapore. The defendant secured her release by providing security in the form of a letter of undertaking furnished by Gard P&I (Bermuda) Ltd. The Reecon Wolf was released from arrest on 28 August 2010.

The claim in the Singapore Action is a maritime claim within the admiralty jurisdiction of the High Court of Singapore. Likewise, the claim against the Capt Stefanos in Malacca (the Malaysian Action) is a maritime claim within the admiralty jurisdiction of the High Court of Malaya, at Malacca. Notably, the parties would be the same even if, procedurally, their positions were reversed in the two actions so that the present plaintiff in the Singapore Action was the defendant in the Malaysian Action, and vice versa. The substantive issues in both proceedings were the same, namely, which vessel was responsible for the collision? If both vessels were negligent, what should the apportionment of liability be? Simply put, each party would be liable for the damage in proportion to the degree in which its ship was at fault.

The defendant filed its Preliminary Act in the Malaysian Action on 8 September 2010. The plaintiff filed its Preliminary Act in the Singapore Action on 26 October 2010. On the same date, the plaintiff applied to stay the Malaysian Action in favour of Singapore (“the Malaysian Stay Application”), and on 3 November 2010, the defendant followed suit and applied, vide Summons No 5218 of 2010 (“SUM No 5218”), for an order that the Singapore Action be stayed in favour of Malaysia.

SUM No 5218 was dismissed by the Assistant Registrar on 18 March 2011. The defendant duly filed RA 94 on 31 March 2011. On 8 July 2011, I allowed the appeal in RA 94 and ordered, inter alia, a stay of the Singapore Action and directed that security be furnished by the defendant to secure the plaintiff’s intended claims in Malaysia. The plaintiff has appealed against my decision.

I should mention that even though the Malaysian Stay Application was filed earlier, SUM No 5218 was coincidentally heard first on 18 March 2011. In the course of the hearing of RA 94, counsel for the plaintiff, Mr John Seow (“Mr Seow”), informed me of the dismissal of the Malaysian Stay Application, and that an appeal would be lodged on 6 July 2011.

When deciding on this appeal, I had to bear in mind the latest development: that the High Court of Malaya at Malacca had ruled on the appropriateness of Malaysia as the forum for the resolution of the issues between the parties; that the Malaysian Action would go on whatever might happen in Singapore; and that the plaintiff would appeal against the ruling.

Events leading to and after the collision

The Capt Stefanos is a Bahamian registered vessel and the Reecon Wolf is registered in the Marshall Islands. The owner of the Capt Stefanos is Osmium Shipping Corporation, a Liberian company, and the vessel appears to be managed and operated by entities based in Greece or the Bahamas.1 The owner of the Reecon Wolf is Daimon Shipping Ltd, a company incorporated in the Marshall Islands. Its shipmanagers, Furtrans Ship Management GmbH, have their headquarters in Germany but operate from Turkey. The officers and crew members of the Reecon Wolf were from the People’s Republic of China. The Master and Second Mate of the Capt Stefanos were Greek whilst the Chief Mate was Ukrainian. Her crew members were mainly Filipinos with the exception of an AB (able-bodied seaman) who was a citizen of the People’s Republic of China.

Both vessels laden with cargo were bound for China and were transiting the Straits of Malacca en route to Singapore for bunkers when the collision occurred. Prior to the collision, the Reecon Wolf was seen overtaking on the port side of the Capt Stefanos. Shortly after she reached a position just forward of the port beam of the Capt Stefanos, the Reecon Wolf suddenly veered to starboard. The Capt Stefanos immediately put her wheel hard-to-starboard to turn away from the Reecon Wolf. However, the starboard bow of the Reecon Wolf collided with the aft port quarter of the Capt Stefanos. Both vessels sustained collision damage from the incident.

After the collision, the Masters of the Capt Stefanos and the Reecon Wolf communicated over VHF. From the VHF communication, it appears that the Reecon Wolf experienced power loss and steering gear failure shortly before the collision. This VHF communication after the collision was not disputed by either party. The plaintiff has therefore alleged that the collision happened when the Reecon Wolf experienced a loss of engine power whilst attempting to overtake the Capt Stefanos.

The Malaysian Marine Department (“MMD”) intervened shortly after the incident and directed the vessels to anchor at the port of Malacca for investigations. The crew of both vessels were interviewed and some documentation onboard the vessels were provided to the MMD officers. Nothing further appeared to have ensued since the vessels left Malacca.

Whilst the Reecon Wolf was under arrest in Singapore, the plaintiff filed Summons No 4061 of 2010 for the inspection of the Reecon Wolf pursuant to O 70 r 28 of the Rules of Court (Cap 322, R 5, 2006 Rev Ed). An Inspection Order was granted and the plaintiff’s appointed experts, who were from the firm of BMT Marine & Offshore Surveys (“BMT Singapore”), inspected and conducted tests on the steering gear and equipment onboard the Reecon Wolf for over two days on 27 and 28 August 2010. It appears that the defendant had given an undertaking to preserve all relevant documents in its custody, possession and power pending the determination of the dispute either in Singapore or Malaysia.

The Law

There was little dispute as to the principles the court must apply when considering an application to stay proceedings on grounds of forum non conveniens. The principles are enunciated in the Spiliada Maritime Corporation v Cansulex Ltd [1987] AC 460 (“The Spiliada”). The Spiliada has been approved and followed by the Court of Appeal in Singapore and the most recent decisions are: Rickshaw Investments Ltd and Another v Nicolai Baron von Uexkull [2007] 1 SLR(R) 377 (“Rickshaw Investments”), CIMB Bank Bhd v Dresdner Kleinwort Ltd [2008] 4 SLR(R) 543 and JIO Minerals FZC and others v Mineral Enterprises Ltd [2011] 1 SLR 391 (“JIO Minerals”). It is settled law that the court has a general discretion applying The Spiliada principles to stay proceedings on the ground of forum non conveniens when this is required in the interests of justice.

The Spiliada principles encompass a 2-stage process. Stage 1 involves identifying the existence of an available forum that is clearly or distinctly more appropriate than Singapore for the action to be tried in, ie, the forum in which the case may be tried more suitably for the interests of all the parties and the ends of justice. At Stage 1, the burden is on the defendant to show both that Singapore is not the natural or appropriate forum for the trial of the action, and that there is another available forum which is clearly or distinctly more appropriate than Singapore (see The Spilidia (at 477) and JIO Minerals (at [53]).

The natural or appropriate forum for the trial of the action is the forum with which the action has the most real and substantial connection, and it is identified by its connections to various factors. The list of factors is not exhaustive. The usual factors taken into consideration are the residence and place of business of the parties, matters affecting the convenience and expense of the parties of litigating in either of the competing fora (such as the location and availability of witnesses), and the law applicable to the substance of the dispute. The place where the tort is committed is prima facie the natural forum in the sense that it is the forum that is clearly or distinctly the more appropriate forum for the action to be tried in. However, as this is only a prima facie position, the court will consider if the prima facie natural forum is either displaced by other factors or, if taken with other factors, they all clearly point to the natural forum as the more appropriate forum (see JIO Minerals at [106]; Chan Chin Cheung v Chan Fatt Cheung and others [2010] 1 SLR 1192 (“Chan Chin Cheung”) at [31]).

Multiplicity of proceedings is also a relevant factor in evaluating the more appropriate forum (see Meadows Indemnity Co Ltd v Insurance Corporation of Ireland Ltd [1989] 1 Lloyd’s Rep 181 at 189 (the Court of Appeal refused to interfere in the judge’s exercise of discretion, see [1989] 2 Lloyd’s Rep 298); The Varna No 2 [1994] 2 Lloyd’s Rep 41 at 47; Chan Chin Cheung at [44]). In...

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3 cases
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