Negative declarations for tort are covered by Article 5(3) JR – The Court of Justice in Folien Fischer

Does Article 5(3) JR cover an action for declaration as to the non-existence of liability? This was the question in Folien Fischer and it was answered by the ECJ in the affirmative.

Article 5(3) holds a special jurisdictional rule for tort:

A person domiciled in a Member State may, in another Member State, be sued: (…)

3. in matters relating to tort, delict or quasi-delict, in the courts for the place where the harmful event occurred or may occur;

Jurisdiction is established under Article 5(3) for the court of the place where the harmful event occurred ‘or may occur’.

The question on negative declarations for liability in tort was referred for a preliminary ruling by the German Bundesgerichtshof in the course of a dispute between, on the one hand, Folien Fischer AG (‘Folien Fischer’) and Fofitec AG (‘Fofitec’), companies established in Switzerland, and, on the other hand, Ritrama SpA, which has its registered office in Italy. Folien Fischer and Fofitec had been accused of essentially infringement of competition law in their sales practice and in Fofitec’s refusal to grant a license to Ritrama for one of its patents. Ritrama had issued a shot across the bows in sending Folien Fischer a letter alleging the incompatibility with competition law of its commercial practices.

Folien Fischer subsequently took the case to court first, in Hamburg, where it was found to be inadmissible for lack of international jurisdiction. Hamburg had taken its cue from that part of German scholarship which  argued that negative declarations are not covered by Article 5(3), thus leaving Folien Fischer no choice but to seek that declaration in Italy. Upon appeal the issue came before the ECJ.

Unlike Jaaskinen AG, the ECJ itself did not think that the reversal of roles in a negative declaration of liability, merits the non-application of Article 5(3) and the Bier formula. Jaaskinen AG had in so many words suggested that although the Court does not expressly say so in Bier, its holding in that case had a strong whiff about it of protecting the presumed victim, who is generally the claimant in the proceedings. The Court itself laid more emphasis on negative and positive declarations of liability essentially relating to the same matters of law and fact.

Post Bier, the ECJ has had to continue massaging the consequences of that seminal judgment. Bier threatened to open the floodgates to too many potential fora. I believe the Court was wrong in Bier to connect jurisdiction to applicable law (which it did when it found that a variety of fora had ‘natural’ links to the case by virtue of applicable law, or evidence). However follow-up case-law in the meantime (and as often reported on this blog) has taken on large dimensions. Bier /Mines de Potasse now has a large constituency: A complete revisit of the arguments in Bier is probably a tall order (pun intended I fear).

Geert.

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