Christmas crums part II – ÖFAB confirms narrow scope of the insolvency exception and clarifies ‘place where the harmful event occurred’ in case of tort by omission

Ok, I cheat. Judgment of the ECJ in ÖFAB is in fact a left-over of my summer queue. Contractual claims for payment against a Swedish company (Copperhill) had been assigned to Invest, equally domiciled in Sweden. Invest brought an action against a former director and former major shareholder, both domiciled in The Netherlands. Invest sought to have both held liable for the debts of the company, because they had allegedly allowed that company to continue to carry on business even though it was undercapitalised and was forced to go into liquidation.

Firstly the Court had to decide whether the action falls within the ‘insolvency’ exception of Article 1(2)(b) of the Regulation, which provides that it does not to apply to ‘bankruptcy, proceedings relating to the winding-up of insolvent companies or other legal persons, judicial arrangements, compositions and analogous proceedings’. The ECJ held that the exception did not apply, for – per previous case-law – it has to be interpreted narrowly. Only actions which derive directly from insolvency proceedings and are closely connected with them are covered by the exception. Here, the actions in the main proceedings do not constitute insolvency proceedings but were brought after Copperhill had been subject to a company reconstruction order (a near-automatic consequence of Swedish company law, I understand, in the event of limited companies having insufficient capital). In any event, the Court held, those actions do not concern the exclusive prerogative of the liquidator to be exercised in the interests of the general body of creditors, but of rights which an individual creditor is free to exercise in its own interests.

Next up was the qualification of the action as one in tort under Article 5(3) of the Brussels-I Regulation, and if so, the determination of the locus delicti commissi. The underlying debt was a result of work carried out under contract, however the action was based on the former company director and shareholder allegedly not properly having carried out their monitoring duties. Consequently the Court held in favour of the application of Article 5(3)’s special jurisdictional rule for tort.

That leaves the determination of the locus delicti commissi. What was at stake, the Court suggested, was not the financial situation or the carrying-on of the business of that company per se, but rather the conclusion to be drawn as regards a possible failure of monitoring by the member of the board of directors and the shareholder.

Turning to the locus delicti commissi, the Court refers to the place where the activities of the company took place: ‘ It is clear from the documents submitted to the Court that, in the period in which the disputed facts took place, Copperhill’s seat was in the municipality of Åre within the jurisdiction of the Östersunds tingsrǎtt, where, in the same period, it carried on its business and built a hotel. In those circumstances, it appears that the activities carried out and the financial situation related to those activities is connected to that place. In any event, the information on the financial situation and activities of that company necessary to fulfill the management obligations by the member of the board of directors and the shareholder should have been available there. The same is true for the information concerning the alleged failure to comply with those obligations. It is for the referring court to ascertain the accuracy of that information.‘ (at 54).

In other words, in a tort caused by omission (rather than by positive action by the alleged tortfeasor), the Court turns to the place where the tortfeasor’s action ought to have taken place, so as to avoid the very omission that led to the action in tort. For it is that place which answers best to the very raison d’être of the special jurisdictional rules of Article 5: ‘In matters of tort, delict or quasi-delict, the courts of the place where the harmful event occurred or may occur are usually the most appropriate for deciding the case, in particular on grounds of proximity and ease of taking evidence‘   (at 50, with reference ex multis to Folien Fischer).

A very useful judgment. Geert.

 

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