Do single internet transactions lead to multiple jurisdictions for consumer contracts? The ECJ in Maletic

In Case C-478/12 Maletic, plaintiffs (the Maletics) are domiciled in Bludesch (Austria), which lies within the jurisdiction of the Bezirksgericht Bludenz (District Court, Bludenz, Austria). They had booked and paid for themselves, as private individuals, a package holiday to Egypt on the website of lastminute.com. On its website, lastminute.com, a company whose registered office is in Munich (Germany), stated that it acted as the travel agent and that the trip would be operated by TUI, which has its registered office in Vienna (Austria). The booking was made for a particular hotel, the name of which was correctly communicated to TUI by lastminute.com, however the former had mismanaged the booking. Upon their arrival in Egypt, the Maletics discovered the mix-up, stayed at the hotel which they had intended, and subsequently sued for the recovery of the extra costs. They brought an action before the Bezirksgericht Bludenz seeking payment from lastminute.com and TUI, jointly and severally.

The Bezirksgericht Bludenz dismissed the action in as far as it was brought against TUI on the ground that it lacked local jurisdiction. According to that court, Regulation 44/2001 was not applicable to the dispute between the applicants in the main proceedings and TUI as the situation was purely domestic. It held that, in accordance with the applicable provisions of national law, the court with jurisdiction was the court of the defendant’s domicile, that is, the court having jurisdiction in Vienna and not that in Bludenz. As regards lastminute.com, the court held that it had jurisdiction to hear the substantive proceedings on the basis of Article 15 of the Jurisdiction Regulation.

The booking transaction therefore was a single transaction, even if it led to two separate contracts. Assessed separately, one of those clearly leads to application of the Brussels I-Regulation. The other one does not for it is purely domestic. Does the latter become ‘international’ by association?

The ECJ held that it did, for two reasons. Firstly, it referred to its judgment in Owusu in which it held (under the Brussels Convention but with no less relevance for the Brussels I Regulation) that the mere domicile within an EU Member State of just one of the parties involved, is enough to trigger the application of the Regulation. In Owusu, that finding was not affected by the remainder of the parties and fact being external to the EU. The ‘international’ element required to trigger the application of the Jurisdiction Regulation can therefore be quite flimsy indeed. The Court does not refer to Lindner (Case C-327/10) however that case in my view is an even stronger indication of the relaxed attitude of the Court vis-a-vis the international element required. In Maletic, the Court held that the second contractual relationship cannot be classified as ‘purely’ domestic since it was inseparably linked to the first contractual relationship which was made through the travel agency situated in another Member State.

Further, the Court referred to the aim of the consumer title of the Regulation, in particular recitals 13 and 15 in the preamble to Regulation No 44/2001 concerning the protection of the consumer as ‘the weaker party’ to the contract and the aim to ‘minimise the possibility of concurrent proceedings … to ensure that irreconcilable judgments will not be given in two Member States’. Those objectives, the Court held, ‘preclude a solution which allows the Maletics to pursue parallel proceedings in Bludenz and Vienna, by way of connected actions against two operators involved in the booking and the arrangements for the package holiday at issue in the main proceedings.’

I suppose what the Court meant but did not say is that the alternative would not so much ‘allow’ the Maletics to pursue the case in two different courts but rather would oblige them do so. Moreover of course in the case at issue, the parallel proceedings would not concern two different Member States but rather two different courts in one Member State. National joinder and lis alibi pendens rules presumably would go a long way to avoid irreconcilable judgments – not enough, so it would seem, to satisfy the ECJ.

The case was heard without Opinion by the Advocate General. I think it may have warranted such: for the outcome I would suggest is not necessarily straightforward.

Geert.

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