In the recent case of the “Bao Yue”, the English High Court found that the bill of lading holder was liable to reimburse the shipowner for 3 and a half years of storage charges, the cost of which exceeded the value of the cargo.

The claim was brought by Sang Stone, which was both the shipper and the bill of lading holder to whom delivery was to be made, for conversion in relation to 35,000 MT of iron ore, carried from Bandar Abbas (Iran) to Tianjin (China), on board the defendant shipowner’s vessel, the “Bao Yue”.

A dispute arose between Sang Stone, as seller of the iron ore under the FOB sale and purchase contract, and its buyer. As a result Sang Stone withheld the original bill of lading.

The bill of lading had no named consignee, but incorporated the terms of the voyage charter which provided for discharge into a custom bonded warehouse against a letter of indemnity in the event that the original bill of lading was not presented. The charterparty also stipulated that the cost of warehousing the cargo would be for the charterers’ account.

On arrival of the cargo at Tianjin, the original bill of lading was not present so the master discharged the cargo into custom bonded warehouses, via an agent. The agent was then to release the cargo against receipt of the original bill of lading.

However, the cargo was never collected and after 3 years the storage charges exceeded its value. The warehouse owner exercised a lien and refused to release the cargo before payment.

While Sang Stone accepted that the shipowner had been entitled to place the cargo in storage, Sang Stone claimed that the defendant shipowner had converted the cargo on the basis that:

  1. “the defendant was not entitled… to arrange for storage of the cargo in a way which gave rise to a lien in favour of the warehouse owner…”; and
  2. the conduct of the warehouse and agent amounted to denying the holder of the bill of lading access to the cargo.

The shipowner denied the claims brought by Sang Stone, and counterclaimed for the storage charges.

There is an established principle that where a cargo owner fails to claim delivery of a cargo within a reasonable time, the shipowner is entitled to discharge and store the goods at the cargo owners’ cost.  While it was acknowledged by the Court that conversion could occur in circumstances where a lien was created over the goods without authority of the cargo owner, the creation of the lien was, in the circumstances, a “reasonable and foreseeable incident of the storage contract which the defendant was authorised to conclude”. This was particularly the case where a charterparty incorporated into

Whilst conversion may be applicable in instances where there  is denial of access to goods such that the cargo owner is denied possession of them, the Court found that the Sang Stone’s claim fell far short of any deliberate encroachment of rights by the shipowner. Sang Stone had in fact never presented the bill of

lading, and therefore the statements of the agent and warehouse operator had never been tested. Moreover, Sang Stone had not been deprived of the use and possession of the goods: the cargo was available on presentation of the original bills of lading and payment of the charges.

The claim for conversion failed and Sang Stone was liable for the storage charges exceeding the value of the cargo. The Court ordered Sang Stone to deliver the original bills of lading to the shipowner, to allow the cargo to be sold.