Posts Tagged Consumer contracts

Proposed EU e-commerce rules further reduce choice for consumer contracts.

I have referred repeatedly in the past to an inevitable attraction which some find in harmonising private, incuding contract law, in the Member States. The Common European Sales Law (CESL) proposal is dead, and for good reason. Its demise however has not led to the European Commission leaving the path of harmonisation in contract law. The EC has now selected bits and pieces of the CESL approach which it reckons might pass Member States objections. The proposed ‘fully harmonised’ rules on e-commerce formally do not close the door on party autonomy in the contracts under their scope of application. Yet in forcing regulatory convergence top-down, the aim is to make choice of law for these contracts effectively nugatory.

The EC itself formulates it as follows (COM(2015)634, p.1:

“This initiative is composed of (i) a proposal on certain aspects concerning contracts for the supply of digital content (COM(2015)634 final), and (ii) a proposal on certain aspects concerning contracts for the online and other distance sales of goods (COM(2015)635 final). These two proposals draw on the experience acquired during the negotiations for a Regulation on a Common European Sales Law. In particular, they no longer follow the approach of an optional regime and a comprehensive set of rules. Instead, the proposals contain a targeted and focused set of fully harmonised rules.”

Consequently the same proposal reads in recital 49 ‘Nothing in this Directive should prejudice the application of the rules of private international law, in particular Regulation (EC) No 593/2008 of the European Parliament and of the Council and Regulation (EC) No 1215/2012 of the European Parliament and the Council‘: that is, respectively, Rome I and Brussels I Recast’.

Consequently and gradually, choice of law for digital B2C contracts becomes redundant, for the content of national law converges. Support for this in my view is not rooted in fact (the EC’s data on the need for regulation have not fundamentally changed since its doomed CESL proposal), neither is it a good development even for the consumer. National consumer law is able to adapt, often precisely to the benefit of the consumer, through national Statute and case-law. Turning the EU regulatory tanker is much more cumbersome. The circular economy, recently often debated, is a case in point. Many national authorities point to limitations in contract law (incuding warranty periods and design requirements) as an obstacle to forcing manufacturers, including for consumer goods, to adopt more sustainable manufacturing and distribution models. The EC’s current proposals do no meet those challenges, rather, they obstruct them.

Geert.

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Of little birds, language, and choice of court in consumer contracts

I have reported elsewhere (In Dutch – I am hoping for some time at some point to write something similar in English; see in particular para 23) on the fact that the conjunctive ‘or’ has been dropped in all language versions of Article 19 of the Brussels I recast:

The provisions of this Section may be departed from only by an agreement:

  • which is entered into after the dispute has arisen;
  • which allows the consumer to bring proceedings in courts other than those indicated in this Section; or
  • which is entered into by the consumer and the other party to the contract, both of whom are at the time of conclusion of the contract domiciled or habitually resident in the same Member State, and which confers jurisdiction on the courts of that Member State, provided that such an agreement is not contrary to the law of that Member State.

This contrast with the similar proviso on choice of court in employment contracts, Article 23:

The provisions of this Section may be departed from only by an agreement:

  • which is entered into after the dispute has arisen; or
  • which allows the employee to bring proceedings in courts other than those indicated in this Section.

I have suggested, with others, that much as I do not understand why the conjunctive has been dropped, its deletion, combined with its being kept in Article 23, means that for consumer contracts, choice of court pre the dispute are now simply impossible under the Regulation, while being maintained for employment contracts. I was also puzzled as to why such an important change was not discussed at all in the run-up to the recast.

A little bird at the European Commission (one high up the conflicts tree) now tells me that what has happened in reality, is quite different. Reportedly the ‘juristes-linguistes’ took it upon them to correct an apparent linguistic mistake in the previous version of the Regulation (indeed one going back to the Brussels Convention): there ought not to be a conjunctive when listing more than one, non-cumulative alternative. That would also explain the difference with Article 23, where there are only 2 alternatives.

This clears up the legislative intent. It does not to me, at least, clear up the linguistic confusion. We may have been grammatically wrong under the previous format (I cannot judge the correctness of that in all these language versions). However at least we were legally certain. Being fully respectful of grammatical correctness myself (punctuation jokes never fail to amuse me), I am not sure which one to prefer in this instance.

Geert.

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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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Prove it if you can? E-commerce and jurisdiction: the ECJ further completes the jigsaw in Emrek

As tweeted last week, the Court of Justice has clarified the scope of the consumer title of the Brussels-I Regulation in Case C-218/12 Emrek. In Spicheren, a town close to the German border, Mr Sabranovic sells second-hand motor vehicles. He had an internet site on which French telephone numbers and a German mobile telephone number were mentioned, together with the respective international codes. Mr Emrek, who resides in Saarbrücken (Germany) and who learned through acquaintances (not via the internet) of Mr Sabronovic’s business went there and purchased a second-hand motor vehicle.

Subsequently, Mr Emrek made claims against Mr Sabronovic under the warranty before the Amtsgericht (District Court) Saarbrücken. Mr Emrek took the view that, under Regulation No 44/2001, that court had jurisdiction to hear such an action. It was clear from the set-up of Mr Sabranovic’s website that his commercial activity was also directed to Germany. However, it was also clear that the contract that had been concluded was not the result of that direction: Mr Emrek had heard from the business by word of mouth, not the internet.  Must there be a causal link between the means employed to direct the commercial activity to the Member State of the consumer’s domicile, namely the internet site, and the conclusion of the contract with the consumer?

The Court held that requiring such causal link would raise questions of burden of proof. Difficulties related to proof of the existence of a causal link would tend to dissuade consumers from bringing actions before the courts of their domicile and would therefore weaken the protection of consumers pursued by the regulation. However if and when that causal link is in fact established, it would constitute strong evidence which may be taken into consideration by the national court to determine whether the activity of the professional trader is ‘directed at’ the Member State of the consumer’s domicile.

The Court’s judgment could have certainly swayed differently. There are – among other textual – reasons for arguing pro requiring a causal link between the activities directed at the consumer’s place of domicile, and the eventual contract. The ECJ pushes out the consumer protection boat yet a little further.

I can’t quite think of a pun to end this posting. I’ll just end it. Geert.

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On the latest round in preparing for jurisdiction review: the Parliament report of September 2012

Readers of this blog will have noticed that one is getting quite excited about the impending review of the Brussels I Regulation, the Jurisdiction Regulation. I have previously reported on the impact of some of the Council’s proposals, in light of their June general approach document. Parliament has now added the ultimate input prior to the vote in First Reading in November.

Tadeusz Zwiefka MEP, the rapporteur on the review, has issued his (draft) Report which, much like the Council in its June 2012 document, regroups Parliament’s suggestions for amendment. Mr Zwiefka’s text largely speaks for itself and I shall not repeat it all here. It is clear that alignment between Parliament and Council is near complete, not all of it, I believe, very wisely so (in particular, on the arbitration exclusion and on the protected categories), as I have reported earlier when reviewing the Council’s general approach.

There is one advantage to having the Parliament’s text: it also includes all recitals (as opposed to the Council’s General Approach document which had some recitals included as footnotes, but not all). This clarifies at least one element, namely the application of the consumer title of the Regulation.

I had suggested earlier, that Council’s (and now also Parliament’s) insertion in Article 16(1) of a possible forum against companies not domiciled in the EU, for consumer’s contracts, does not trump the Council’s re-insertion of Article 4 (now as noted, 4(a)), hence the counterparty would still have to be domiciled in the EU, for the consumer contracts section to apply. Parliament’s recital 11(f) now suggests I was wrong:

‘However, in order to ensure the protection of consumers and employees, to safeguard the jurisdiction of the courts of the Member States in situations where they have exclusive jurisdiction and to respect party autonomy, certain rules of jurisdiction in this Regulation should apply regardless of the defendant’s domicile.’

Were this amendment to go ahead, the condition of ‘directing activities to’ the Member State’ in Article 15 JR, will gain ever more importance for the territorial scope of the Regulation.

Geert.

 

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Mühlleitner: To enjoy protection as ‘consumer’ contracts, contracts need not be concluded at a distance

The Court of Justice has followed the Opinion of the Advocate General (on which I reported here) in Mühlleitner: Article 15(1)(c) of Council Regulation (EC) No 44/2001 of 22 December 2000 on jurisdiction and the recognition and enforcement of judgments in civil and commercial matters must be interpreted as not requiring the contract between the consumer and the trader to be concluded at a distance.

Debate on the issue had been provoked by the factual circumstances of Alpenhof. The Court of Justice however stuck to both a literal (no mention of distance contracts in the relevant provision), teleological (protection of consumers) and historical (purpose of the change in the Regulation as compared with the previous text in the Convention) interpretation. The relevant Article now only requires that the trader pursue commercial or professional activities in the Member State of the consumer’s (‘consumer’ is separately defined) domicile or, by any means, directs such activities to that Member State or to several States including that Member State and, secondly, that the contract at issue falls within the scope of such activities.

In the case at issue, Ms Mühlleitner, domiciled in Austria, searched on the internet for a car of a German make which she wished to acquire for her private use. After connecting to the German search platform http://www.mobile.de, she entered the make and type of vehicle she wanted, thereby obtaining a list of vehicles corresponding to the characteristics specified. After selecting the vehicle which corresponded best to her search criteria, she was directed to an offer from the defendants, Mr A. Yusufi and Mr W. Yusufi, who operate a motor vehicle retail business via Autohaus Yusufi GbR (‘Autohaus Yusufi’), a partnership established in Hamburg (Germany).Wishing to obtain more information about the vehicle offered on the search platform, Ms Mühlleitner contacted the defendants, using the telephone number stated on the website of Autohaus Yusufi, which included an international dialling code. As the vehicle in question was no longer available, she was offered another vehicle, details of which were subsequently sent by email. Ms Mühlleitner then went to Germany and, by a contract of sale signed on 21 September 2009 in Hamburg, bought the vehicle, taking immediate delivery of it. The contract therefore was not concluded at a distance.

The judgment is a good illustration of the need to consult the EU’s preparatory works, with reference being made to input into the legislative process by Parliament, Council and Commission alike.

Geert.

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Of rocks and hard stones for national courts – Villalon AG in Mühlleitner: No need for restrictive approach to the protective jurisdictional grounds for consumers in Brussels I

Villalon AG has opined in Case C-190/11 Mühlleitner [Opinion as yet not available in English].

Article 15 of the Brussels I ‘Jurisdiction’ Regulation, offers protective jurisdictional rules for consumers, provided one or two conditions are met. Article 15(1)(c) [statutory law likes its subdivisions) offers the generic criterion for application:

‘Article 15

1.      In matters relating to a contract concluded by a person, the consumer, for a purpose which can be regarded as being outside his trade or profession, jurisdiction shall be determined by this Section, without prejudice to Article 4 and point 5 of Article 5, if: (…)

(c)      in all other cases, the contract has been concluded with a person who pursues commercial or professional activities in the Member State of the consumer’s domicile or, by any means, directs such activities to that Member State or to several States including that Member State, and the contract falls within the scope of such activities.’

In Pammer /Alpenhof,   Alpenhof had argued amongst others that that its contract with the consumer is concluded on the spot and not at a distance, as the room keys are handed over and payment is made on the spot, and that accordingly Article 15(1)(c) of Regulation No 44/2001 cannot apply. The Court of Justice had answered this with the very paragraph which has now tempted the Oberster Gerichtshof – Austria, into the preliminary review, para 87:

‘ In that regard, the fact that the keys are handed over to the consumer and that payment is made by him in the Member State in which the trader is established does not prevent that provision from applying if the reservation was made and confirmed at a distance, so that the consumer became contractually bound at a distance.’

This paragraph seemed to suggest ‘at a distance’ as the trigger for the application of Article 15(1)(c) which in turn led to the preliminary question:

Does the application of Article 15(1)(c) [   ] presuppose that the contract between the consumer and the undertaking has been concluded at a distance?

Villalon AG replied on 24 May, making specific reference to the history of Article 15, in particular with reference to the old text, under the Brussels Convention. That old provision seemed to imply that where the consumer’s contracting party had encouraged him to leave his Member State of domicile so as to conclude the contract elsewhere, the consumer could not make recourse to the protective regime. Other changes to the relevant title, too, suggested if anything that Council and Commission’s intention with the new provisions was definitely not to limit their scope of application: had they intended to do so, the AG suggests, the Institutions would have limited Article 15’s scope to contracts concluded at a distance. Court of Justice case-law hints at the same need for a wide approach [in particular, Ilsinger, where the Court of Justice held that the scope of Article 15(1)(c) appears ‘to be no longer being limited to those situations in which the parties have assumed reciprocal obligations.’]

The AG concludes with the suggestion that the reference to ‘distance’ in para 87 of Alpenhof refers to a factual circumstance, rather than a condition for application.

To many the conclusion may seem obvious, and the issue covered by acte clair (meaning the national court could have referred to the arguably obvious meaning of the provision, not to have to refer to the Court of Justice). In particular, the COJ has repeatedly emphasised the relevance of the consumer title in the Jurisdiction Regulation. On the other hand, however, the same Court has been quite anxious to give national courts detailled and specific instructions on the application of tiny details in the Regulation, making application of the acte clair doctrine quite difficult: many things one thought were clear, have been answered by the Court in unexpected ways.

National courts therefore are caught between the proverbial rock and the hard stone. Either they refer profusely, thereby feeding the cycle of micromanagement. Or they make extended use of acte clair, thereby risking unequal application of the Regulation (and potentially European Commission irk). On the issue of Article 15(1)(c) at least, the former would seem to prevail: in Slot, Case C-98/12 (hitherto still pending), the German Bundesgerichtshof has asked essentially the same question.

Geert.

 

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