Vessel Purchase Agreements
Vessel sales are a constant in the marine industry, even during downturns in the market. In fact, some see adverse market conditions as an opportunity to find bargains on vessels and other marine equipment. Once the buyer has “kicked the tires” on a vessel and the parties have agreed on a price, there usually is great pressure from all sides to quickly sign a purchase and sale agreement and close the deal. However, signing an agreement that fails to or inadequately addresses a key issue can cause problems down the road.

Based on years of negotiating, drafting and reviewing vessel purchase and sale agreements for vessels large and small, here is a checklist of the key business and legal points that should normally be addressed in a vessel purchase agreement:

  1. Deposit – If there is to be a deposit, the parties should specify how much it will be and the condition under which it will be deemed forfeited.
  2. Inspection – These clauses vary widely depending on the circumstances. If the buyer has already inspected and is satisfied with the condition of the vessel, the contract may simply provide that the sale is outright and definite upon execution with no right of inspection. Usually, and especially with larger and/or classed vessels with specialized equipment, the buyer will want the right to inspect the vessel and its class records and have the ability to get out of the contract and receive back the deposit, or receive an adjustment in price, if dissatisfied with the condition of the vessel. If there is to be an inspection, the contract normally specifies the scope of the inspection and provides a strict timeline to accomplish it, and may also spell out the consequences for delaying or impeding inspection, insurance and indemnity for claims of inspectors, and allocation of inspection costs.
  3. Time and Place of Delivery – These clauses may include consequences, such as a right of cancellation and/or liability for damages, for failure to timely deliver the vessel.
  4. Total Loss Before Sale – These provisions normally give the buyer the right to cancel if the vessel becomes a total loss before delivery.
  5. Drydocking or Underwater Survey – Similar to inspection provisions, these clauses should address the circumstances under which the buyer may require drydocking or divers’ inspection and who pays for these inspections, which may depend on what is found during the inspection, and insurance and indemnity for claims arising during drydocking. These provisions may also address the buyer’s right to have the tail shaft or other vessel components surveyed during drydocking.
  6. Bunkers, Spares – These clauses typically address how and when bunkers are quantified and priced and paid for, delivery of spares and other items of vessel equipment and whether these are included in the price or paid for separately.
  7. Closing Documentation – The key issue on this point is that the buyer will want to ensure that the seller’s deliverables include all certificates and other documents necessary to meet the requirements of the registry the buyer plans to use. The contract should provide for these to be delivered as a condition of payment of the purchase price, so the buyer does not have to chase the seller after closing for a piece of paper needed to complete registration of the vessel in the buyer’s name.

Vessel purchase and sale agreements usually also have other customary provisions, such as those addressing:

  • Seller’s obligation to deliver the vessel free from all charters, encumbrances, mortgages and liens.
  • Seller’s indemnification for claims incurred prior to delivery that are asserted after delivery.
  • Allocation of responsibility for taxes, fees and expenses.
  • The required condition of the vessel and equipment upon delivery.
  • Default by the buyer or seller and the consequences of default.
  • Dispute resolution.

Numerous forms of vessel purchase and sale agreements are available publicly to use as templates in drafting agreements and specific clauses. However, when presented with any contract, whether based on an established template (e.g. BIMCO, Saleform) or drafted for the particular deal, you should never hesitate to negotiate what is important to you and revise the agreement accordingly.

I think this Workboat article outlined succinctly the challenges faced by debt-laden shipowners in the current market downturn. With adverse market conditions expected to continue for the long term in almost all shipping sectors, shipowners should be taking the following measures to keep their heads above water:
  • evaluate debt service obligations and ability to pay;
  • assess potential for financial covenant default;
  • reach out to lenders to obtain waivers/amendments to credit facilities; and 
  • identify assets that can be sold.
There are important differences between maritime arrest and attachment.

“A ship may be here today and gone tomorrow, not to return for an indefinite period, perhaps never. Assets of its owner . . . within the jurisdiction today, may be transferred elsewhere or paid off tomorrow.”[1] This problem, aptly described by the Ninth Circuit and all too familiar to those transacting business in the maritime industry, constitutes one of the primary justifications for the centuries-old doctrines of maritime attachment and arrest. Both maritime attachment and arrest provide a claimant, who might otherwise be left without a remedy, with the important ability to obtain pre-judgment security and, practically speaking, force the defendant to respond to a suit.[2] However, the doctrines are distinct, and the distinction is often lost on the unfamiliar.

To utilize maritime arrest, the claimant must have a maritime lien on the property to be seized.[3] A maritime lien can arise in a number of situations, including the provision of necessaries to a vessel (such as bunkers, supplies, repairs, or any other goods and services that benefit the vessel), wages of the master and crew, damages arising from maritime torts and contract maritime liens.[4] “Although the property to be arrested usually is a vessel, any property that is subject to a maritime lien can be arrested, including intangible property . . .”[5] Once a claimant can establish that property subject to a maritime lien can be found within the territorial district of a federal court, the claimant can have that property seized by the United States Marshal.[6] Further, the owner of the seized property is only entitled to its release upon posting adequate security with respect to the lien amount. Alternatively, the seized property can be sold to satisfy the lien; however, if the amount received is insufficient to satisfy the lien, the owner of the property is not liable for the balance because the action is solely against the seized property, not the owner.[7]

Like maritime arrest, maritime attachment can also be utilized for the pre-judgment seizure and potential sale of the debtor’s property to satisfy a judgment.[8] Beyond this basic similarity, however, maritime attachment and arrest differ significantly. Maritime attachment is, on the one hand, broader than maritime arrest. It is ostensibly available to anyone with a maritime-based claim. Further, any property belonging to the debtor, which is found within the territorial district of a federal court, is subject to attachment.[9] Thus, unlike with maritime arrest, the property need not have any relationship with the claim itself.[10] Further, maritime attachment allows a claimant to obtain a personal judgment for the full sum due against the owner of seized property, and the owner remains liable for the balance of the judgment if the property seized is insufficient to satisfy it.[11] On the other hand, maritime attachment is more limited than maritime arrest because it is only available to a claimant who can establish that the debtor is not subject to personal jurisdiction within the applicable judicial district.[12]

While the distinctions between maritime attachment and arrest are important, and the use of these powerful tools must be analyzed carefully, both remain vital resources for anyone transacting business in the maritime industry. This is especially true given the ease with which assets, especially vessels, can be tracked and located in today’s marketplace.

________________________________________

[1] George A. Rutherglen, The Contemporary Justification for Maritime Arrest and Attachment, 30 Wm. & Mary L. Rev. 541 (1989) (quoting Polar Shipping Ltd. v. Oriental Shipping Corp., 680 F.2d 627, 637 (9th Cir. 1982)).

[2] See William Tetley, Arrest, Attachment , and Related Maritime Law Procedures, 73 Tul. L. Rev. 1895, 1928-29 (1999).

[3] Ravenna Tankers Pte., SRL v. Omni Ships Pte. Ltd., Nos. 13–127, 13–221, 2013 WL 2153544, *4 (E.D. La. May 15, 2013).

[4] See Tetley, supra note 2, at 1929-30.

[5] Ravenna Tankers, 2013 WL 2153544, at *4.

[6] See Tetley, supra note 2, at 1933.

[7] Id.

[8] Belcher Co. of Alabama, Inc. v. M/V Maratha Mariner, 724 F.2d 1161, 1165 (5th Cir. 1984).

[9] Winter Storm Shipping, Ltd. v. TPI, 310 F.3d 263, 268 (2d Cir. 2002) (overruled on other grounds by Shipping Corp. of India Ltd. v. Jaldhi Overseas Pte. Ltd., 585 F.3d 58 (2d Cir. 2009)).

[10] Id.

[11] Belcher Co. of Alabama, 724 F.2d at 1165.

[12] Rule B of the Supplemental Rules for Admiralty and Maritime Claims.

Most contracts for the sale of goods and services contain a standard provision regarding the application of payments on overdue accounts, such as:  “When more than one invoice is past due at the same time, Seller shall be entitled, at its sole discretion, to specify the particular invoice to which any subsequent payment shall be applied.”  Additionally, those contracts also may contain a provision that payments on overdue invoices shall first be applied to any accrued interest, and thereafter to any amounts outstanding.

The U.S. Fifth Circuit recently concluded that a seller’s confirmation of payment of an invoice in full precluded “reallocation of that payment in a different manner at a different time.”   World Fuel Services, Inc. v. MAGDALENA GREEN M\V, No. 11 – 30722 (5th Cir. Mar. 14, 2012).  As a result, a bunkers supplier’s arrest of a vessel for alleged late payment of an invoice for fuel was properly vacated because the seller had acknowledged the underlying debt had been paid in full.

SESL executed a general bunkers contract with WFS, which contained the payment allocation provisions mentioned supra.  SESL subsequently time chartered the MAGDALENA GREEN and another vessel, the UTA, and thereafter purchased approximately $245,000 in bunkers from WFS for both vessels.  After WFS demanded payment in full for fuel supplied to both vessels, SESL forwarded an e-mail:  “Please find the attached remittance slips.  All payments are made.  Please re-confirm thanks.”  WFS replied, “Thanks – confirmed all paid.”

Six months later, WFS filed suit against the MAGDALENA GREEN for SELS’s untimely payment for fuel, and the vessel was arrested.  In response to the owners’ defense that the invoice for the bunkers provided to the vessel had been paid in full, WFS argued that the provisions of its contract allowed it to apply payments to accrued contractual interest and fees from older invoices, presumably from other vessels, leaving the invoice for the bunkers provided to the MAGDALENA GREEN outstanding after receipt of the $245,000 payment from SESL.  The Fifth Circuit affirmed the district court’s dismissal of WFS’s suit.

The court noted the payment allocation provisions of WFS’s contract.  However, the court concluded WFS’s unconditional acceptance of that payment as “all paid” nullified those payment allocation provisions.

By confirming “MAGDALENA GREEN paid today,” WFS exercised its discretion to specify the invoice to which SESL’s payment would be applied.  WFS has the contractual right to allocate payments when they are made, but it does not have the right to then allocate those payments in a different manner at a later time.

Id. at 4.  Once the MAGDALENA GREEN’s debt to WFS had been paid, its liability and WFS’s maritime lien were extinguished.

In order for ship suppliers to take advantage of the payment allocation provisions of their contracts, they need to first decide how they are going to allocate such payments.  If they allocate the payment first to older invoices and/or to interest, prudent practice suggests that they advise their purchasers within a reasonable time after payment is received as to how the payment has been applied to the overdue account.  As the Fifth Circuit concluded, much like Lady Macbeth’s lament, once the seller tells the purchaser that an invoice is “all paid,” it cannot undo what’s been done.

Transactions to procure supplies for vessels engaged in international trade typically involve numerous international and local brokers, agents and contractors.  The vessel operator or charterer will place an order for supplies with a broker.  The broker locates a seller with the best price and reputation in the vicinity of the vessel.  The seller makes arrangements with one or more contractors to deliver the supplies to the vessel.  At the agreed time and place, the vessel thereafter pays the broker, who ensures that the seller is paid in full less any broker’s commission.  The seller then compensates the delivery contractor at their agreed rate.  (Of course, failure to timely pay by the vessel interests potentially gives rise to maritime liens against the vessel in favor of the suppliers.)

Under the foregoing arrangements, it is clear that there is no direct contract between the vessel interests and the delivery contractor.  However, for purposes of the Oil Pollution Act, the U.S. Fifth Circuit has concluded that the typical arrangements for the sale and delivery of bunker fuel to ships can qualify as a “contractual relationship”, with the result that the vessel could not avoid strict liability for clean-up costs under OPA for a fuel spill resulting from the collision the vessel and a barge, hired by the fuel seller to deliver the fuel to that vessel. Buffalo Marine Servs. Inc. v. United States, No. 10-41108 (5th Cir. Nov. 22, 2011). In so holding, the Court approved the government’s broad definition of “contractual relationship,” which correspondingly resulted in a very limited scope of one of OPA’s affirmative defenses.

The operators/charterers of the TORM MARY had purchased fuel from Bominflot through LQM, a fuel broker.  Bominflot hired Buffalo Marine, the owner/operator of a tug and barge, to deliver the fuel to the TORM MARY.  As Buffalo Marine’s tug was maneuvering the barge alongside the TORM MARY, the barge collided with the TORM MARY, holing the her hull and fuel tank and resulting in a spill of 27,000 gallons of heavy fuel oil into the Neches River.  The fuel was never transferred from the barge to the TORM MARY.

Under OPA, the TORM MARY, as the responsible party, was strictly liable for the removal costs and damages resulting from the spill unless it established, by a preponderance of the evidence, that the spill was caused solely by an act or omission of a third party, other than a third party whose act or omission occurs in connection with any contractual relationship with the responsible party.  33 U.S.C. § 2703(a)(3).  The National Pollution Funds Center (“NPFC”) denied the claim of the vessel owners and insurers for reimbursement of certain clean – up expenses, concluding that they had failed to establish as part of their affirmative defense that Buffalo Marine’s acts were not in connection with any contractual relationship with the TORM MARY interests.  The NPFC had interpreted the phrase “any contractual relationship” in OPA as not being limited to contractual relationships where there is direct privity of contract.  Instead, “any contractual relationship” also included indirect contractual relationships in connection with the commercial sale and delivery of fuel via a chain of agents and contracts between the TORM MARY interests – the fuel purchasers, and Buffalo Marine – the seller’s delivery agent.  According to the NPFC, the mere fact that the bunkers were not ultimately delivered did not affect the contractual nature of the relationship between the TORM MARY interests and Buffalo Marine.

Accordingly, Buffalo Marine’s acts or omissions in causing the collision were by a third party who had a contractual relationship with the TORM MARY interests.  As a result, the NPFC rejected the TORM MARY’s affirmative defense under OPA that the spill was solely caused by Buffalo Marine.

The district court denied via summary judgment Buffalo Marine’s suit for agency review under the Administrative Procedure Act.  On appeal, the Fifth Circuit concluded that the NPFC’s interpretation of OPA, more particularly, the phrase “any contractual relationship with the responsible party” was entitled to substantial deference, and was a permissible construction of the statute.  Additionally, the NPFC’s interpretation was consistent with a similar affirmative defense appearing in the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation and Liability Act.  Lastly, the Fifth Court concluded that there was substantial evidence to support the NPFC’s denial of the claim.  Accordingly, the Fifth Circuit affirmed the district court’s summary judgment in favor of the NPFC.

When seeking construction financing for a proposed newbuilding, shipowners should understand and be prepared to address the particular concerns that lenders have in assessing risk and documenting vessel construction projects.

When deciding whether to approve a construction financing loan, lenders focus on certain key factors:

  • Does the shipyard have the requisite experience, manpower and financial wherewithal to complete the project?  To address this concern, shipowners should deal only with established builders with proven records of successfully completing vessel construction projects, preferably involving the type of vessel to be financed.
  • What is the credit strength of the shipowner?  If the lender will not be financing the entire cost of construction, the shipowner must be able to show that it can fund any unfinanced portion of the cost as well as any owner furnished equipment.  As with any loan, the financial strength and operating experience of the shipowner also will be important to the lender’s assessment of the shipowner’s ability to operate the vessel profitably and make debt service payments.
  • Is the shipowner overpaying for the vessel?  Shipowners should be prepared to demonstrate that the construction cost is in line with vessels of similar type. Prudent lenders consult with appraisers to help them evaluate the cost.
  • How strong will the market demand for the vessel be?  As with any business loan, the lender will want to see realistic and verifiable projections of the vessel’s earning potential after construction.  In optimal cases, a ship is constructed for a specific customer of the shipowner and committed under long-term services agreements or charters with firm competitive terms.

Once the lender has agreed to go forward with financing, it is a best practice to involve the lender in the negotiation of the construction contract so that issues that will be important to the lender can be addressed up front.   Nonetheless, in many instances, the shipbuilding contract already has been signed before the shipowner seeks financing.  In those cases, lenders will want to review the contract and may requests amendments to protect the lender’s interests.  Items of particular concern to lenders include:

  • when title passes to the shipowner;
  • the shipbuilder’s obligation to certify as to completion of milestones;
  • the scope of the shipbuilder warranties;
  • the progress payment schedule;
  • provisions relating to documentation of the vessel;
  • builder indemnities against lien claims of subcontractors as well personal injury, property damage and pollution claims arising during construction;
  • the adequacy of insurance coverage during construction; and
  • assignability of the contract as security for the loan.

In the typical construction loan transaction, the lender will take an assignment of the construction contract to secure repayment of the loan.  Under this assignment, if the shipowner defaults in repayment of the loan during construction, the lender will be entitled to take title to the vessel upon completion and sell the vessel to cover its loses on the loan.   The lender will also require that the builder consent to this assignment and agree to subordinate any lien it has in the vessel to the mortgage and other security interests taken by the lender.

As construction progresses, the lender will make advances for progress payments, which are usually repaid on an interest-only basis, until the vessel is completed.  To make these interim advances, lenders usually require supporting documentation that may include:

  • a shipbuilder’ certification that the milestone for which the progress payment is being made has been achieved;
  • invoices of the shipbuilder and other vendors or subcontractors for labor, material and equipment covered by such milestone;
  • releases of any liens in favor of any vendors, materialmen, or subcontractors the cost of whose services, work, equipment or materials is included in the advance;
  • a shipowner-certified advance request;
  • surveys, appraisals, certifications or other documents that a lender may require to establish that the advance is for a purpose authorized under the loan documents;
  • if an advance is made to reimburse the shipowner for owner-furnished equipment, proof of payment of the expenditures for which reimbursement is sought,

Once the vessel is completed, the construction-phase interim loan will convert to permanent term financing secured by a preferred ship mortgage on the vessel.  This conversion usually occurs in connection with the payment of the final milestone payment under the contract and delivery of the vessel.  At that time, the lender will require delivery of:

  • a term promissory note executed by the shipowner;
  • an Application for Documentation [form CG-1258];
  • Builder’s Certification and First Transfer of Title Document [form CG-1261] signed by the builder;
  • a Warranty Bill of Sale executed by the builder;
  • a Delivery and Acceptance Certificate, evidencing physical delivery of the vessel to the shipowner;
  • a preferred ship mortgage executed by the shipowner in favor of the lender; and
  • a certificate of insurance evidencing the coverages [hull and machinery, P&I, mortgagee’s interest] required by the preferred mortgage.

Depending on the structure of the deal, the lender may require other security documents such as a security agreement, assignment of charter hire and earnings and/or assignment of insurance policies.  The lender will require that the shipowner and shipbuilder coordinate the documentation of the vessel with the Coast Guard with the lender’s contemporaneous filing of its preferred ship mortgage, so that mortgage interest attaches at the time of documentation.