Garcia v Total Gabon: Stay of English proceedings with (potential) lis alibi ex-EU.

Thank you very much indeed Sarah Venn and Emma Hynes both for flagging Garcia v BIH, Total Gabon and Sigma, [2017] EWHC 739 (Admlty), and (Emma) for providing me with copy (Bailii are not yet running it). This case is extremely suited to an oral exam of conflict of laws: in a written exam to many issues would have to be discussed. (Mine this term are mostly written. Hence I’ll run this piece early).

Claimant is a French national who worked as a professional diver offshore Gabon, West Africa, and suffered catastrophic brain injury which he blames on poor working practices on the second defendant’s site (Total Gabon), which is where he was working. He was employed by first defendant BIH, a UK based company, with choice of court and governing law made for English courts cq English law. First defendant is clearly domiciled in the UK and the Brussels I Regulation clearly applies to it. The third defendant Sigma, was contracted by Total Gabon. Claimant’s position is that he was deployed by BIH to work under the control of Sigma on the site which was, or should have been, supervised by Total Gabon. Total Gabon claim the contractual relationships between it and Sigma prevent a claim against the former.

BIH is small fish which may even have been struck off the company register. It is clear that plaintiff will not receive from BIH the amounts he needs for his constant medical care.

A default judgment was issued against BIG who did not engage with proceedings – at any rate jurisdiction against BIG per Owusu (with which readers of this blog are now ad nauseam familiar) could not be dismissed; . Total Gabon contest jurisdiction on the basis that England and Wales is not the appropriate forum.

This is not said in so many words in the Judgment however the presence of an anchor defendant per Article 4 Brussels I Recast, is of no relevance where the co-defendants are not domiciled in the EU. The regulation cannot be used to justify such anchor, residual conflicts rules take over.

Jervis Kay QC AR considers many cases which I have reported on before: VTB, Owusu, Lungowe, Spiliada. Lungowe in particular is considered by Mr Kay, including the issue of abuse of the use of anchor defendants and (at 23 in fine) the acknowledgment, implicitly (I wrote it explicitly in my review of the case) that of course EU precedent in this respect is pro inspiratio only.  Applying English residual conflicts rules, the judge then reviews whether there is a serious case (‘a real prospect of succeeding’) that could be made against Total Gabon, either one in tort or one in contractual liability. He found there is such real prospect, for both, but especially for tort.

However the case eventually (access to justice issues in Gabon were not flagged neither discussed) stumbles on the question whether the English courts would be the most appropriate forum: it is found they are not. Inspiration is found especially in Erste Group Bank [2015] EWCA Civ 379, a case in which forum non conveniens was applied even against an England-domiciled defendant because there had already been submission to Russian jurisdiction. In Garcia, the Court applies Erste per analogiam: the parallel, Mr Kay suggests, is that the case against the first defendant has effectively been wrapped up. The spectre of competing judgments therefore, Mr Kay holds, does not arise (at 36) and England is therefore not the appropriate forum. If the case is appealed I would imagine this altogether brief consideration of appropriateness and the parallel seen with Erste, I would imagine would be its Achiless heel.

(One of the considerations which defendant, per VTB, considers, is that as a rule of thumb, Gleichlauf is to be preferred (I have often found this a less attractive part of the Supreme Court’s ruling). Which is why defendant considers Rome II: if the English courts were to hear the case, they would have to apply Rome II even if their jurisdiction is a result of residual English conflicts rules).

An alternative action for Mr Garcia, one imagines, would have been (or perhaps it still is) to use Total France SA as anchor in France, to try and have the subsidiary’s actions assigned to it: a more classic CSR case.

Anyways, I think you will agree that one could have a good chinwag on this judgment at oral exam.

Geert.

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