Calling time on ‘contract’ and ‘tort’ between contracting parties. The ECJ in Brogsitter.

When does a spat between contracting parties become a tort really? Relevant for all sorts of reasons of course. Not in the least, in Brogsitter, with a view to establishing jurisdiction.

Mr Brogsitter sells luxury watches. In 2005, he concluded a contract with a master watchmaker, Mr Fräβdorf, then resident in France. Fräβdorf undertook to develop movements for luxury watches, intended for mass marketing, on behalf of Mr Brogsitter. Mr Fräβdorf carried out his activity with Fabrication de Montres Normandes, company of which he was sole shareholder and manager. It appears that Mr Brogsitter paid all costs relating to the development of the two watch movements which were the subject of the contract.

Fräβdorf and his company subsequently also developed, in parallel, other watch movements, cases and watch faces, which they exhibited and market in their own names and on their own behalf, whilst advertising the products online in French and German. Mr Brogsitter submits that, by those activities, the defendants breached the terms of their contract. According to Mr Brogsitter, Mr Fräβdorf and Fabrication de Montres Normandes had undertaken to work exclusively for him and, therefore, might neither develop nor make use of, in their own names and on their own behalf, watch movements, whether or not identical to those which were the subject of the contract.

Brogsitter seeks an order that the activities in question be terminated and that damages be awarded in tort against on the basis, in German law, of the Law against Unfair Competition (Gesetz gegen den unlauteren Wettbewerb) and Paragraph 823(2) of the Civil Code (Bürgerliches Gesetzbuch); he submits that, by their conduct, the defendants breached business confidentiality, disrupted his business and committed fraud and breach of trust.

Defendants argue that only French courts have jurisdiction, under Article 5(1) of the Brussels I Regulation, to determine all the applications made by Mr Brogsitter, as both the place of performance of the contract at issue and of the allegedly harmful event were situated in France. The Landgericht Krefeld in first instance had found against its own jurisdiction. This went straight to interim appeal, with the Oberlandesgericht Düsseldorf holding that the first instance court’s international jurisdiction derived, with regard to the dispute before it, from Article 5(3) with respect to the hearing and determination of only the civil liability claims made in tort by Mr Brogsitter. The other claims, in contrast, concerned ‘matters relating to a contract’ within the meaning of Article 5(1) of that regulation, and should be brought before a French court. Krefeld was still unsure and referred the following question to the ECJ: (I do not think the ECJ in this case rephrased it much better):

‘Must Article 5(1) of Regulation [No 44/2001] be interpreted as meaning that a claimant who purports to have suffered damage as a result of the conduct amounting to unfair competition of his contractual partner established in another Member State, which is to be regarded in German law as a tortious act, also relies on rights stemming from matters relating to a contract against that person, even if he makes his civil liability claim in tort?’

The ECJ referred to familiar lines: ‘contract’ and ‘tort’ need to be interpreted autonomously. (A European definition needs to be given, not a national one). The concept of ‘matters relating to tort, delict or quasi-delict’ within the meaning of Article 5(3) covers all actions which seek to establish the liability of a defendant and which do not concern ‘matters relating to a contract’ within the meaning of Article 5(1)(a)  (Kalfelis).

However that one contracting party brings a civil liability claim against the other is not sufficient to consider that the claim concerns ‘matters relating to a contract’ within the meaning of Article 5(1)(a) (at 23). That is the case only where the conduct complained of may be considered a breach of contract, which may be established by taking into account the purpose of the contract, which will a priori [the German grundsätzlich would have been better translated as ‘in principle’, or indeed, assuming French was the language of the original draft, ‘a priori’ should have been dropped for ‘en principe’; but I stray] be the case where the interpretation of the contract which links the defendant to the applicant is indispensable to establish the lawful or, on the contrary, unlawful nature of the conduct complained of against the former by the latter (at 24-25).

‘Where the interpretation of the contract which links the defendant to the applicant is indispensable to establish the lawful or, on the contrary, unlawful nature of the conduct complained of against the former by the latter’: these cases in other words do not lend themselves to a quick fix of jurisdiction review: some skimming of substantive law issues will be necessary.

Incidentally, the link between contracts and torts is also of immediate concern in the area of competition law. (Where the issue is often whether follow-on claims in damages are impacted by choice of court and choice of law in underlying contracts).

Geert.

 

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