False bills of lading sink shipping trio

Roger Pearson reports on an appeal against damages awarded in a shipping case centring on falsely dated bills of lading.

The Court of Appeal is to rule on a case of major importance in shipping circles.

The case centres on what Mr Justice Cresswell described in the High Court decision being challenged as the "cancer" of ante-dated and false bills of lading in international trade.

Judgment has now been reserved by the Court of Appeal.

In his damning 59-page Commercial Court ruling last year, Mr Justice Cresswell said that honest commerce required such documents to be accurate and trustworthy.

He found that Standard Chartered Bank was entitled to damages from Pakistan National Shipping Corporation (PNSC), Seaways Maritime and Arvind Mehra, a director of Oakprime International.

The bank had sued PNSC, Seaways and Mehra in respect of losses it claims it had incurred as a result of parting with money on letters of credit on the basis of false and ante-dated bills of lading.

Mr Justice Cresswell ordered damages, estimated to be in the region of $1.2m (#750,000) with interest, to be paid in equal shares by the three defendants.

He said that PNSC, as a national shipping corporation, had been guilty of "dishonest conduct approved at the highest level".

However, the Mr Justice Cresswell's finding of dishonesty has been challenged. The appellants deny that the actions giving rise to the ruling entitled the bank to damages.

The case involved a consignment of Iranian bitumen sold by Oakprime in May 1993.

Payment was to be by an irrevocable letter of credit opened by the Vietnamese Incombank in favour of Oakprime, confirmed in London by Standard Chartered as $2.94m (#1.84m) and stipulating that last date for shipment was 25 October 1993.

However, the judge found that, in the middle of October 1993, Mehra, Seaways and PNSC agreed on a plan involving the issue of bills of lading falsely dated for 25 October 1993 to enable Oakprime to present them to Standard Chartered to obtain payment under the letter of credit, despite the fact that shipment had not been made by the last date permitted by the letter of credit.

The judge held that this amounted to deliberate deception of Standard Chartered and any other bank to which the bills of lading might be presented to obtain payment.