最高院对集装箱超期使用费诉讼时效起算点的认定——以最高人民法院(2015)民提字第119号案为例

日期:2017年9月15日 17:09

作者:海商海事团队

 

一、案件事实
 
       2010年2月,A.P.穆勒-马士基有限公司(下称“马士基公司”或“原告”)接受上海蝉联携运物流有限公司深圳分公司(下称“深圳蝉联”)的委托,将5个集装箱的货物(下称“货物”)从盐田港运至印度。2010年2月23日,货物抵达目的港孟买新港后,因一直无人提货,最终导致货物被当地海关拍卖。2011年2月28日,当地海关通知马士基公司,货物已被拍卖并要求其向新买主交付货物。
 
        2012年2月27日,马士基公司正式向广州海事法院提起诉讼,要求深圳蝉联与上海蝉联携运物流有限公司(以下合称“被告”)共同承担货物在孟买新港滞留期间产生的集装箱超期使用费共计人民币1,029,554元。[1]
 
[1]该案为最高人民法院评选的第二批十个涉“一带一路”建设典型案例之一,在业界具有较大影响力
 
二、法院观点
 
        根据《最高人民法院关于承运人就海上货物运输向托运人、收货人或提单持有人要求赔偿的请求权时效期间的批复》(下称“批复”)的规定,承运人就海上货物运输向托运人要求赔偿的请求权比照适用《中华人民共和国海商法》第257条第1款的规定,时效期间为1年,自权利人知道或应当知道权利被侵害之日起计算。原、被告对该1年时效并无异议,本案的争议焦点在于应如何认定该1年时效的起算点。
 
        广州海事法院以及广东省高级人民法院(以下合称“两级法院”)均认为[2],造成马士基公司权利被侵害的原因是马士基公司提供的集装箱被超期占用,该损害事实持续不间断发生,直至货物被海关拍卖后,集装箱超期使用所造成的损害才停止,费用数额才固定。因此,对前述“知道或应当知道权利被侵害之日”的理解应为“知道或应当知道权利被侵害的具体损失金额确定之日或权利被侵害的终止之日”。据此,马士基公司行使请求权的时效期间应从印度孟买新港海关向其发出交付货物通知之日,即2011年2月28日开始起算,至2012年2月27日马士基公司向一审法院提起诉讼之时,并未超过1年时效。故,两级法院支持了原告的诉请。被告不服,遂向最高人民法院申请再审。
 
       最高人民法院认为[3],“侵害终止之日”和“损失金额确定之日”并不等同于“知道或应当知道权利被侵害之日”,两级法院的观点均属于对法律的错误理解。本案中,根据各方当事人的确认,深圳蝉联应从2010年3月1日开始向马士基公司支付集装箱超期使用费。该情况表明,马士基公司请求给付集装箱超期使用费的权利自该时起就已经产生。在集装箱免租期届满而托运人及收货人均没有按照约定向原告支付这些费用的情况下,原告就已知道或应当知道权利受到了侵害,即马士基公司从2010年3月1日起就知道或者应当知道其权利被侵害,而并非一直要等到集装箱被占用的状态结束后才知道权利受到了侵害。此外,深圳蝉联于3月30日通过电子邮件承诺托运人将承担集装箱超期使用费,其构成《中华人民共和国海商法》第二百六十七条规定的时效中断情形。故,本案时效应从2010年3月30日开始起算,马士基公司于2012年2月27日提起诉讼已超过1年诉讼时效,其已丧失对该项请求的胜诉权。据此,最高人民法院判决撤销原一、二审判决并驳回马士基公司的诉讼请求,就此为该案画上了句号。
 
[2]参广州海事法院(2012)广海法初字第329号民事判决书、广东省高级人民法院(2013)粤高法民四终字第162号民事判决书
[3]参最高人民法院(2015)民提字第119号民事判决书
 
三、案件评述
 
       近年来,随着国际海上集装箱运输的发展,因目的港收货人不明,收货人拒绝提货导致滞留在目的港的集装箱被长期占用的情况越来越多,其给承运人造成了巨大损失。实践中,人们对承运人向托运人、收货人或提单持有人请求集装箱超期使用费的1年时效已罕有争议。
 
      但纵观近几年出现的集装箱超期使用费纠纷案件,因各法院对“自承运人知道或应当知道权利被侵害之日起算”有不同理解和适用,一定程度上导致司法实践的不统一。为解决这一问题,最高人民法院通过本案明确了“应从集装箱免租期届满之日的次日开始起算集装箱超期使用费诉讼时效”的裁判规则,对今后法院处理类似案件具有相当的指导意义。
 
       本案中,适用最高人民法院确立的上述裁判规则的直接结果为涉案集装箱超期使用费诉讼时效的起算点提前了将近一年的时间。就此,站在承运人的立场来看,为维护自身合法权益,承运人应尽可能核查现有未决集装箱超期使用费之争议,若有时效临近届满者,应尽快与相关债务人协商解决。若协商不成的,应及时提起诉讼或仲裁,以免超过诉讼时效。
 
Abstract
 
Container demurrage charge is usually claimed by the carrier whose losses and damages arisen as a result of the containers occupied after free period. These containers could not be operated for transportation or any other management over quite long period, which infringed the carrier’s legal rights and thus incurred economic losses and damages.
 
Container demurrage chargeis common disputes arising from carriages of goods by sea, especially when the cargoes arrived but no consignees accepted or took the delivery of the cargoes and those containers of cargoes were longtime detained at the port of discharge. In accordance with the Reply of the Supreme People’s Court regarding the limitation period for claims of the carrier for compensations against the shipper, consignee and B/L holder in carriage of goods by sea, the limitation period of the container demurrage charge shall apply to the first paragraph of Article 257 in Maritime Law of the People’s Republic of China, which prescribes that the limitation period is one year, counting from the day the entitled person knows or should know that his rights have been infringed upon. However, it is not clear what exactly is “knows or should know that rights have been infringed upon”. Also the lack of clarity under the current laws and regulations led to inconsistent judicial practices and thus caused confusion. Recently, a latest judgment issued by the Supreme People’s Court explicitly interpreted that the limitation period for demurrage charge shall be calculated from the next day of expiry of rent-free period. This judgment would undoubtedly have far-reaching impact on Chinese further judicial practice especially in respect of container demurrage charges.
 
Facts
 
On February 2010, Chanlian ( Shenzhen ), a logistics company, entrusted A.P Moller-Maersk ( hereinafter referred to as “Maersk ) to transport 5 containers cargoes from Yantian, China to NhavaSheva, India. The cargoes arrived on 23 February 2010. However, no consignee took delivery of cargoes upon arrival. As a result, those cargoes were finally auctioned by the local customs. On 28 February 2011, the local customs notified Maersk that the cargoes had been auctioned and further ordered Maersk to redeliver the cargoes to the auction bidder.
 
On 27 February 2012, Maersk, as a claimant, filed a lawsuit with respect to the container demurrage charges arising therefrom during the detention period before the Guangzhou Maritime Court against both Chanlian ( Shenzhen ) and Chanlian ( Shanghai ) as defendants, claiming for compensation of demurrage charges at the total amount of RMB 1,029,554.
 
Court’s Decision
 
Both of The Guangzhou Maritime court and the High People’s Court of Guangdong Province ( hereinafter referred to as “the two courts” ) affirmed the basic facts that: the extended use of these 5 containers genuinely infringed Maersk’s legal rights, leading to costs and damages increased continuously until the cargoes were auctioned. In this way, the two defendants shall compensate for the Claimant Maersk’s container demurrage charges if such claim was filed within the limitation period.
 
The main disputing point of this case was how to calculate the starting point of the limitation period of Maersk’s claims. According to Maersk, the period should be calculated from 28 February 2011, at the time when the India customs settled the cargoes andthe continuous damages ended. So it was within the one-year limitation period from the day above to 27 February 2012 when Maersk filed a lawsuit. On the other side, Chanlian ( Shanghai ) and Chanlian (Shenzhen ) defended: The limitation period should be calculated from 23 February 2010, on the day when the cargoes arrived but no consignees took the delivery. The limitation period would thus exceed one year and be expired if calculated from that day. Both of the two courts rendered decisions in favor of Maersk that the starting day should be on 28 February 2011. The limitation period was within one year, and the defendants should compensate Maersk for demurrage charges. The two defendants did not follow the decisions and appealed to the Supreme Peoples’ Court for retrial.
 
The Supreme People’s Court held that after the expiry of the free rental period ( 5 days ), Maersk should know that his rights have been infringed at that time. Whenever the consignees took delivery of cargoes, container demurrage charges still had accrued and infringed the claimant’s rights. In this case, the cargoes arrived at NhavaSheva, Indiaon 23 February 2010. After 5-day free rental period, the container demurrage charges began to accrue from 1 March 2010, on which Maersk knew that his rights had been infringed upon and the limitation period began. Nevertheless, limitation period interrupted on 10 March 2010 when Chanlian ( Shenzhen ) promised to undertake the container demurrage charges by email after receiving Maersk’s notification. As prescribed in Article 267 in Maritime Law of the People’s Republic of China, the limitation of period shall be discontinuedas a result of admission to fulfill the obligations by the person against whom the claim was brought up. Therefore, the limitation period should be calculated from 10 March 2010, from which it exceeded one year and was expired when Maersk filed a lawsuit on 27 February 2012. As a result, Maersk in this case was not entitled to claim for the container demurrage charges due to the expiry of the limitation period.
 
Comment
 
Disputes on container demurrage charges were increasing controversial, since they are deemed as an infringement to the carrier. Considering lack of clarity under current laws and regulations, the Supreme People’s Court in this case established the judgment rule: the limitation period of claims for container demurrage charge shall be calculated from the next day of expiry of rent-free period. This would definitely have major influence on similar cases in the future. With respect to this pioneering judgment and the revolution that may be brought, we are pleased to deliver our comments as follows:
 
Where the consignee is unknown or refuses to take the delivery of the cargoes, large numbers of containers will be longtime detained or occupied at the discharge port and then container demurrage charges accrue. It has been practically acknowledged that the limitation period for claims of the carrier for container demurrage charges was within one year, counting from the day the entitled person knows or should know that rights have been infringed upon. But in practice, it is ambiguous to define when to exactly start such limitation period. In this case, the Supreme People’s Court provided the clear answer. The starting point would be greatly ahead of time compared to the past, and would be no longer controversial.
 
In addition, the initiative judgment issued by the Supreme People’s Court had instructive meaning for Chinese courts to settle similar cases, which protected the carrier’s legal rights to some extent. Undersuch circumstances, carriers shall firstly verify the current situation of the limitation period. And carriers shall actively approach the debtor after the free period. If no agreement is reached through consultation, the carrier shall promptly initiate the legal proceedings, otherwise the limitation period for container demurrage claim would easily expire and led to inevitable losses for Carrier. 
 
如需更多信息,请联系陈柚牧律师/伍健鸿律师!
 
 
 
陈柚牧 高级合伙人
TEL:+86 136 0165 2399
EMAIL: mervyn.chen@wintell.cn
 
 
 
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