Ninth Circuit Reverses Denial of Fees Award, Remanding for A New Look in COGSA, Bill of Lading Case.
So what happens when you have a seemingly statutory choice-of-law clause (that means no attorney’s fees) and a contractual clause (that may mean attorney’s fees) in the same case? Well, if you are the litigant arguing for a fee award—argue that the contractual clause governs. That is what the litigant argued in the next case did and—wonders of wonders—it obtained a reversal of a fee denial on appeal.
The case is APL Co. Pte. Ltd. v. UK Aerosols Ltd., Case No. 07-16739 (9th Cir. Sept. 21, 2009) (for publication), which involved a bill of lading governed by Singapore law and the operation of the Carriage of Goods by Sea Act (COGSA). The district judge essentially held that COGSA was the governing choice-of-law provision in a bill of lading that “preempted” a fees clause applying Singapore law (which adopted the English Rule that the prevailing party wins). Federal law generally does not permit the prevailing party in an admiralty case to recovery attorney’s fees. (B.P.N. Am. Trading, Inc. v. Vessel Panamax Nova, 784 F.2d 975, 977 (9th Cir. 1986).) However, notwithstanding this rule, admiralty courts will generally give effect to a contractual agreement that holds otherwise. (Chan v. Soc’y Expeditions, Inc., 123 F.3d 1287, 1297-97 (9th Cir. 1997).) Because the contractual bill of lading clause specified Singapore law (winner obtains fees) and Singapore law was the proper choice of law over COGSA, the matter had to be reversed and remanded for a calculation of fees due to the prevailing party.