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Eleventh Circuit Enforces US$270 Million International Arbitration Award in Complete Victory for Panama Canal Authority

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In the latest result in a series of long-running legal actions where Vinson & Elkins is lead counsel representing the Panama Canal Authority (“ACP”) arising out of complex and high value construction disputes with Grupo Unidos por el Canal (“GUPC”), a consortium of European and Panamanian companies who designed and built the Third Set of Locks, the US Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit denied GUPC’s attempts to vacate an ICC arbitral award.

The underlying arbitration in this case related specifically to various issues with the concrete and aggregates used for the project as well as geological conditions in the area and other related issues. An ICC tribunal seated in Miami (the “Tribunal”) originally issued Awards on the merits,  resulting in sums payable to the ACP in the order of US$270 million (which included a substantial portion of the ACP’s legal costs).

GUPC  sought to vacate the Awards in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Florida in Miami with the ACP subsequently filing a separate cross motion to enforce the Award.

The U.S. District Court (following the same finding by the ICC Court) denied the Contractor’s Motion to Vacate and granted the ACP’s Motion to Confirm the Award. Notably, the Court held that GUPC’s  challenges were “nothing more than speculation.”

Subsequently, GUPC filed the appeal in the US Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit seeking to overturn the decision of the District Court.

On 17 August 2023, The Eleventh Circuit concluded that the arbitrators’ alleged failure to disclose several lucrative cross-appointments and ongoing relationships between them was not enough to warrant vacating the awards. The Court noted that because “we agree with the International Court of Arbitration and the district court that [GUPC] has presented nothing that comes near the high threshold required for vacatur, we affirm the denial of vacatur and the confirmation of the awards”.

The Vinson & Elkins team representing ACP is led by partner Nick Henchie, who has represented the ACP for 16 years, with assistance from partner Scott Stiegler and associates Ben Grunberger-Kirsh and Rebecca Hilton.  The ACP was represented in the U.S. court proceedings by partners Jim Loftis and Jeremy Marwell with assistance from counsels Peter Danysh, Matt Hoffman, Timothy Tyler and Max Etchemendy and senior associate Lawrence Winsor.

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