Choice of court and lis alibi pendens in Generali Italia v Pelagic Fisheries. Article 31’s anti-torpedo mechanism further put to the test.

In Generali Italia & Ors v Pelagic Fisheries & Anor [2020] EWHC 1228 (Comm) the claimants-insurers commenced proceedings seeking declarations that they are not liable to the Insureds. Pelagic had already commenced proceedings in Treviso, Italy on the basis of what it claims to be choice of court in favour of Italy. The first instance Italian court stayed the Treviso Proceedings (the insureds have appealed; the appeal is yet to be heard) pending a determination by the English court as to whether the Treviso Policies are subject to an exclusive English jurisdiction clause. The Italian stay order reads in relevant part:

‘the lis alibi pendens defence which has been raised requires that these proceedings are suspended in order to allow the High Court of London to rule on the exclusive English jurisdiction clause pursuant to art 31.2 of EU Reg 1215/2012. That since, in the light of what is established by the said provisions, it is irrelevant that the Italian Judicial Authority has been seised first, …. Indeed article 31 of the above mentioned regulation represents an exception to the operation of the ordinary rule of priority in matter of lis alibi pendens, in order to allow the judges chosen by the parties in contractual terms (cover notes) to be the first to rule on the validity of the clause itself (according to the law chosen by the parties). In the concerned case all the cover notes, in the special insurance conditions, contain the clause ‘English jurisdiction. Subject to English law and practice”, with consequent waiver to the general insurance conditions provided in Camogli Policy 1988 form”.’

Other parties are part of the proceedings, too – readers best refer to the facts of the case. They clarify that chunks of the proceedings bear resemblance to the kind of split stay scenario applied by the CJEU in C-406/92 The Tatry.

Foxton J refers to the good arguable case test viz Article 25 Brussels Ia of BNP Paribas v Anchorage, recently also further summarised by the Court of Appeal in Kaefer Aislamientos and further in Etihad Airways PJSC v Flöther.

The case essentially puts Article 31 BIa’s anti-torpedo mechanism to the test in related ways as the first instance judge and the Court of Appeal did in Ablynx. There is a dispute between the parties as to whether A31(2) obliges the English Court to stay proceedings unless and until there is a determination in the Treviso Proceedings that the Italian courts do not have jurisdiction. There are 3 core questions: i) Should the English Court proceed to determine whether there is an exclusive jurisdiction clause in favour of this Court, in circumstances in which Pelagic is contending in Italy that the Italian courts have jurisdiction, or should it await a ruling on jurisdiction in the Treviso Proceedings? ; ii) If it is appropriate to determine the issue, is there an English exclusive jurisdiction agreement in the Treviso Policies for the purposes of Article 25?; iii) Should the Court stay the remainder of the proceedings under Article 30?

At 65 counsel for the insureds take a similar position as Ms Lane did in Ablynx: he argues that the only issue which the High Court should consider is whether it is satisfied that there is a prima facie case that the Italian court has jurisdiction (which he says there is on the basis that the parties agreed that both the English and Italian courts would have jurisdiction) and that if it is so satisfied, it should stay the English proceedings, pending the outcome of Pelagic’s appeal in the Italian proceedings.

Foxton J however at 68 ff highlights the inadequate nature and limitations of A25(4), as also pointed out by the last para of recital 22 which accompanies it: in the face of conflicting choice of court provisions (typically, as a result of overlapping clauses in overlapping contractual relations between the parties), A25(4) loses its power and the more classic lis alibi pendens rules take over. At 70 he points to the ping-pong that threatens to ensue:

in circumstances in which the Italian court has stayed its proceedings to allow the English court to determine if it has exclusive jurisdiction, it would be particularly surprising if the English court was then bound to stay its proceedings pending a decision on jurisdiction by the Italian court. This approach, in which the dispute might become caught in the self-perpetuating politeness of an Alphonse and Gaston cartoon, is not consistent with enhancing “the effectiveness of exclusive choice-of-court agreements” and avoiding “abusive litigation tactics” which Article 31(2) is intended to achieve. It does not matter for these purposes that the decision of the Italian court granting such a stay is presently under appeal.

He holds therefore at 79 that his task is essentially to review whether there is a good arguable case that the Treviso Policies (the ones subject of the English litigation, GAVC) are subject to exclusive jurisdiction agreements in favour of the English court which satisfy the requirements of A25 BIa. At 95 he finds there is such case. At 113 ff he holds obiter he would have stayed the remainder of the claims under A30, had he held in favour of a stay under A31(2).

Fun with conflict of laws.

Geert.

(Handbook of ) European Private International Law, 2nd ed. 2016, Chapter 2, Heading 2.2.6.7, Heading 2.2.9.5.

 

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