North Ocean Shipping v Hyundai

April 01, 2024
Micheal James

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Introduction to North Ocean Shipping v Hyundai

North Ocean Shipping v Hyundai [1979] is a landmark case in English contract law concerning contractual interpretation, frustration of contract, and the allocation of risk in international transactions. This case study delves into the details of the dispute, the legal questions it raised, and its lasting impact on how courts approach unforeseen circumstances in contracts.


The case involved a disagreement between North Ocean Shipping (NOS), a shipping company, and Hyundai Heavy Industries (HHI), a shipbuilder. NOS contracted with HHI for the construction of a new oil tanker. The contract specified a fixed price for the tanker, payable in installments denominated in US dollars (USD). To ensure payment security in case NOS defaulted, HHI established a letter of credit. However, the situation took an unexpected turn following the contract signing. The global economic landscape shifted, resulting in a significant decline (around 10%) in the value of the US dollar.


The central legal question centered on the consequences of the unforeseen currency devaluation for the contract:

  • Did the devaluation event frustrate the contract, essentially rendering its performance excessively difficult or impossible for either party?
  • Could HHI, the shipbuilder, demand a price increase from NOS to compensate for the decline in the value of USD, the agreed-upon payment currency?


The court delivered a judgment in favor of HHI (the shipbuilder). They held that the contract remained valid (not frustrated) but that HHI could rightfully claim a price adjustment from NOS to account for the currency fluctuation.


The court’s decision addressed two key aspects of the case:

  • Frustration of Contract:┬áThe court acknowledged the significant impact of the currency devaluation on HHI’s profit margins. However, they concluded that the devaluation did not entirely destroy the value of the contract for either party. NOS could still take possession of the completed ship, and HHI could still fulfill its obligation to build it, albeit with a reduced profit due to the currency fluctuation. Since both parties could still perform their contractual obligations, even if in a less favorable financial situation, the court ruled that the contract was not frustrated.
  • Contractual Interpretation:┬áThe court shifted its focus to the absence of a specific clause within the contract that addressed the potential for currency fluctuations. In the absence of such a clause, the court held that the risk of currency devaluation fell on NOS, the party who would have benefited from the fixed price if the USD had appreciated against other currencies.


North Ocean Shipping v Hyundai is a leading case concerning contractual interpretation and the allocation of risk in the face of unforeseen circumstances. It established two important principles:

  • Mere financial hardship caused by external factors might not necessarily constitute frustration of contract. Courts will consider the severity of the impact and whether the contract can still be performed in some form, even if less profitably for one party.
  • The absence of specific clauses addressing potential risks (like currency fluctuations) can leave one party bearing the consequences if such risks materialize. This case emphasizes the importance of drafting comprehensive contracts that consider potential risks and allocate them explicitly to avoid future disputes.


North Ocean Shipping v Hyundai remains a significant case in contract law. It highlights the importance of clear and comprehensive contractual terms, especially when dealing with international transactions and potential currency fluctuations. The case emphasizes that parties should consider potential risks and allocate them explicitly within the contract to avoid disputes later, ensuring a clearer understanding of each party’s obligations and potential liabilities in the face of unforeseen circumstances.

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