This is the latest chapter in the transatlantic saga involving the Seaton Insurance and Stonewall Insurance companies. We blogged earlier about related lawsuits in the United States (see our December 22, 2008 post), and an English court’s decision denying those insurance companies’ application for a stay for proceedings pending resolution of a motion to dismiss in the United States District Court for the Southern District of New York (see our July 23, 2008 post). This complex case presents interesting issues of the interface between US and UK courts and between US and UK law.

The underlying facts and procedural history of the disputes are tortuously complex. At the risk of understatement, it suffices to say that Seaton and Stonewell became involved in litigation with Cavell USA, owned by British citizen Kenneth Randall, over Cavell’s handling of the run-off of their insurance obligations under an administration agreement. The parties entered into a written settlement of their disputes (the “Term Sheet”), which contained a provision that the settlement “shall be governed by and construed in accordance with English law and the parties submit to the exclusive jurisdiction of the English courts.” The Term Sheet included a “carve-out” provision for “fraud” on the part of former managers, related companies and individuals.

After entering into the settlement with Cavell, Seaton and Stonewell initiated arbitration with their reinsurer in the United States, National Indemnity Company (“NICO”), and served subpoenas on Cavell. Seaton and Stonewell also sued Cavell in the United States District Court for the Southern District of New York, alleging what was said to be “fraud” under New York law. The gist of the fraud claim focused on the delegation by Cavell of claims handling for Seaton and Stonewall to NICO pursuant to a Collaboration Agreement; it was alleged that Cavell and Randall “fraudulently” subordinated the interests of Seaton and Stonewall to those of NICO by entering into, operating and concealing the Collaboration Agreement.

Cavell and Randall then separately sued Seaton and Stonewell in the United Kingdom, seeking a declaration that all of their disputes had been compromised by the Term Sheet, as well as damages resulting from Seaton and Stonewell involving them in the United States arbitration and litigation. Seaton and Stonewell challenged the jurisdiction of the English court, and sought the aforementioned (denied) stay of the English lawsuit pending a decision on a motion to dismiss the United States lawsuit they had filed.

In May 2008, the English court ordered a trial of preliminary issues, which included: “(1) whether the parties have agreed to submit all their disputes, including claims in fraud to the exclusive jurisdiction of the English Court; (2)(i) what is meant by fraud; and (ii) whether claims advanced in the New York Court are claims in fraud, within the meaning of the carve-out.” The claimants, Cavell and Randall, submitted that the answer to issue (1) was “yes,” since any proceedings brought other than in the English court system are in breach of the Term Sheet. They also submitted that the answer to issue (2)(i) was that “fraud” meant “deceit,” as in the English tort of deceit, “and no more.” Finally, the claimants argued that the answer to (2)(ii) did not arise but, if so, it was “no.” The English court agreed with the claimants on both issues (1) and (2)(i). It found a determination of issue (2)(ii) to be unnecessary in light of its predicate determinations.

Reaching the first delineated issue, the court observed that resolution turned on a “double actionability” test: any claim brought must constitute “fraud” both within the meaning of the Term Sheet, as construed under English law (there was no dispute that English law governed interpretation of the Term Sheet), and as a matter of the law governing the “antecedent transactions,” that is, the alleged “fraudulent” conduct itself. Thus, the court would – in both sides’ views – be required to determine whether a particular claim is or is not a claim of “fraud” within the meaning of the carve-out. “The critical difference between the parties was that, on the Claimants’ case, this Court would be dealing, in addition, with the substance of any surviving claim; whereas, on the Defendants’ case, determination of the substance of any claims would rest with some other court or tribunal.” The court, as noted, concluded that the parties agreed to submit all disputes to the exclusive jurisdiction of the English courts, principally finding that a provision for all disputes not otherwise resolved to be dealt with in a single jurisdiction was consistent with the Term Sheet’s overall purpose of achieving an orderly termination of the parties’ relationships. The court further observed that the plain language of the jurisdiction clause (“and the parties submit to the exclusive jurisdiction of the English Courts”) “is wide rather than restricted,” and did not exclude claims sounding in fraud.

The court next turned to what was meant by “fraud” in the carve-out, beginning with the natural meaning of “fraud” in an English contract. Fraud has the “ordinary and primary meaning of deceit,” although it was observed that fraud was also capable of a wider meaning, referring generally to “dishonesty” as required by the context. However, the context did not require such a broad meaning in the court’s view, as it would have eviscerated the Term Sheet’s purpose, allowing virtually any claim permitted by clever pleading. “Indeed, once the safe ground of the primary meaning of ‘fraud’ is abandoned, it is not at all clear where to stop.” Thus, the court concluded that “fraud,” as was meant by the carve-out, had only the primary meaning of deceit. Cavell USA Inc. v. Seaton Insurance Co. [2008] EWHC 3043 (Nov. 12, 2008).