Posts Tagged JR

Dutch Shell Nigeria / Royal Dutch Shell ruling: anchor jurisdiction confirmed against Nigerian daughter.

Update 21 March a mirror case is going ahead in the High Court in London: jurisdiction against the mother company again is easily established because of Shell’s incorporation in the UK (its corporate headquarters are in The Netherlands (which is also where it has its tax residence). The High Court has allowed proceedings against Shell Nigeria to be joined. Shell is expected to argue forum non conveniens at a later stage.

Postscript 1 March 2016 in Xstrata Limited /Glencore Xstrata plc ., similar issues of corporate social responsibility and liability for a subsidiary’s actions are at stake.

As I have reported in December, the Gerechtshof Den Haag confirmed jurisdiction against Shell’s Nigerian daughter company. (Please note the link first has the NL version of the judmgent, followed by an EN translation). The proceedings can be joined with the suit against the mother company Royal Dutch Shell (RDS, headquartered in The Netherlands whence easily sued on the basis of Article 4 Brussels I Recast (Article 2 of the Regulation applicable to the proceedings)). I have finally gotten round to properly reading the court’s judgment (which deals with jurisdiction issues only). As I have pointed out, Article 6(1) (now 8(1) of the Brussels I Recast) cannot be used against defendants not domiciled in the EU. Dutch rules on joinders applied therefore. The Gerechtshof however took CJEU precedent into account, on the basis that the preparatory works of the relevant Dutch rules on civil procedure reveal that they were meant to be so applied. Consequently a lot of CJEU precedent is reviewed (the most recent case quoted is CDC). The Gerechtshof eventually holds that lest it were prima facie established that liability of RDS for the actions committed by its Nigerian daughter is clearly unfounded, use of RDS as an anchor can go ahead. Only clearly abusive attempts at joinders can be sanctioned. (A sentiment most recently echoed by the CJEU in Sovag).

The Gerechtshof Den Haag, without being definitive on the issue, also suggested that applicable law for considering whether merger operations inserting a new mother company were abusive (merely carried out to make Royal Dutch Shell escape its liability), had to be addressed using ‘among others’ the lex incorporationis (at 3.2). That is not undisputed. There are other candidates for this assessment.

The judgment being limited to jurisdiction, this case is far from over.

Geert.

European private international law, second ed. 2016, Chapter 8, Headings 8.3.1.1., 8.3.2

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Royal Dutch Shell. Watch those stockings. Nigeria / RDS judgment on appeal expected end December.

Postscript 1 March 2016 in Xstrata Limited /Glencore Xstrata plc ., similar issues of corporate social responsibility and liability for a subsidiary’s actions are at stake.

Postscript 18 December: quick update, more to follow: in an interim judgment, jurisdiction was upheld.

I have earlier referred to Shell’s arguments in appeal (in Dutch) on the specific issue of jurisdiction, which may be found here .  Judgment in first instance in fact, as I reported, generally was quite comforting for Shell (and other holding companies in similar situations) on the issue of substantive liability.

However on jurisdiction, the Dutch court’s approach of joinders under residual national jurisdictional rules, was less comforting. The rules on joinders, otherwise known as ‘anchor defendants’, in the Brussels regime (Brussels I as well as the Recast) do not apply to defendants domiciled outside of the EU. Consequently national rules of civil procedure decide whether an action against a daughter company, established outside of the EU, can be successfully anchored to an action against the mother company (against which jurisdiction is easily established per Article 4 of the Recast, Article 2 of the former Regulation). In first instance, the Court at The Hague ruled in favour of joining a non-EU defendant to a case against its mother company in The Netherlands.

In its submission for appeal, Shell (with reference to relevant national case-law) borrows heavily from CJEU case-law on what was Article 6(1) (now Article 8(1)), suggesting that Dutch residual law was meant to apply as a mirror the European regime, with one important difference: precisely the issue that under the Dutch regime, none of the parties need to be domiciled in The Netherlands. Any jurisdictional rule which leads the Dutch courts to accept jurisdiction against one defendant, even if that anchor defendant is not domiciled in the country, can lead to others being drawn into the procedure. This means, so Shell suggests, that the Dutch rule (Article 7(1) of the Dutch code of civil procedure) is more in need of precautions against abuse, than the equivalent European rule.

As part of the efforts to avoid abuse, the Dutch courts need to make a prima facie assessment of the claims against the anchor defendant: for if those claims are spurious, anchoring other claims to such loose ground would be abusive. On this point, the Court of Appeal will have to discuss the corporate veil, piercing it, Chandler v Cape etc. Shell’s submission does not in fact argue why piercing needs to be assessed by the lex causae (here: Nigerian law as the lex loci damni) and not, for instance, by the lex fori. I doubt the Court of appeal will raise it of its own accord. (See here for a consideration of the issues in an unrelated area and further pondering here).

A little bird tells me that appeal judgment will be issued on 18 December. I may or may not be able to review that before the Christmas break. In the negative, it will have to be an Epiphany posting. (Potentially in more than one meaning of the word).

Geert.

 

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Choice of court on the web . The ECJ on ‘click-wrap’ in El Majdoub v CarsOnTheWeb.

I have delayed reporting on judgment in Case C-322/14, Jaouad El Majdoub v CarsOnTheWeb.Deutschland GmbH, held 21 May 2015, for exam reasons. I reported earlier on the due diligence required of businesses when establishing choice of court through electronic means. The ECJ has now also had its say, in a case concerning a B2B contract for the purchase of a car. [Choice of court in a B2C context tends to be covered by the consumer contracts title hence is not at stake here. [Mark Young and Philipe Bradley-Schmieg review the relevance of the case for B2C contracts here].

Choice of court allegedly had been made in favour of the courts at Leuven, Belgium, in the vicinity of which the seller’s parent company has its head office. The buyer however sued in Germany, the domicile of the German daughter company (and of the buyer, a car dealer). Buyer claims that the  contract at any rate was with the daughter company, not the mother company, and that choice of court had not been validly made. He submits that the webpage containing the general terms and conditions of sale of the defendant in the main proceedings does not open automatically upon registration and upon every individual sale. Instead, a box with the indication ‘click here to open the conditions of delivery and payment in a new window’ must be clicked on (known as ‘click wrapping’).

In essence therefore the question is whether the requirements of Article 23(2) of the Brussels I Regulation (now Article 25(2)) are met only if the window containing those general conditions opens automatically, and upon every sale. That Article was added at the adoption of the  Brussels I Regulation, precisely to address the then newish trend of agreeing to choice of court (and indeed choice of law; but that is not covered by Brussels I) through electronic means.

The provisions on forum clauses in the 1968 Brussels Convention, Brussels I and the recast are drafted in a way ‘not to impede commercial practice, yet at the same time to cancel out the effects of clauses in contracts which might go unread’ (Report Jenard) or otherwise ‘unnoticed’ (the ECJ in the core case Colzani). the Report Jenard also notes that in order to ensure legal certainty, the formal requirements applicable to agreements conferring jurisdiction should be expressly prescribed, but that ‘excessive formality which is incompatible with commercial practice‘ should be avoided.

The first sentence of Article 25(1) discusses the parties ‘agreement’ as to choice of court. (It leaves a large array of national law issues untouched, such as consideration, mandate, 3rd party effect. etc. On some of those issues, see also Refcomp). The remainder of Article 25(1) concerns the possible formats in which agreement is testified. Article 25(2) (and 23(2) before it) accompanies Article 25(1) a’s option of having the agreement put down ‘in writing’.

In line with the requirement not to be excessively formalistic, the ECJ essentially requires that parties be duly diligent when agreeing to choice of court. If click-wrapping makes it possible to print and save the text of those terms and conditions before the conclusion of the contract, then it can be considered a communication by electronic means which provides a durable record of the agreement.

Note that the Court does not hold on whether the agreement is actually reached between the parties: only that click-wrap may provide a durable record of such agreement, where it exists. (One could imagine choice of court having been protested, for instance, or other issues of national law having an impact on the actual existence of the agreement. and one can certainly imagine a continuing discussion on what contract was concluded between what parties in the case at issue].

Geert.

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Choice of court and choice of law on the web – Due diligence required. Brussels Court of Appeal in A v P.

The Brussels Court of Appeal held in A v P on 25 March 2013, on a choice of court agreement included on the internet. Its judgment should be a reminder of the need to take care of the design and formulation of choice of court clauses in standard terms and conditions via the internet. The judgment can be consulted via this issue of  Tijdschrift@IPR.be (p.37 ff).

The CA first of all correctly holds that the alleged non-existence of a contract does not affect its duty to review whether the choice of court agreement which is part of the contract, might be valid.

Company P has its registered seat in Poland. Company A in Belgium. P had sent A a quote for delivery of a substantial amount of solar panels. The judgment does not specify how the offer was sent however it was subsequently countersigned by A. Subsequent e-mails specified that the panels had to be delivered in Poland. The quote contained a reference to a weblink which contained P’s standard terms and conditions. No further written or verbal reference had been made by the parties to a choice of court agreement. P’s standard terms and conditions contained choice of court in favour of the courts at Brussels.

The Court of Appeal referred to Colzani in which the ECJ held that ‘IN THE CASE OF A CLAUSE CONFERRING JURISDICTION , WHICH IS INCLUDED AMONG THE GENERAL CONDITIONS OF SALE OF ONE OF THE PARTIES , PRINTED ON THE BACK OF THE CONTRACT , THE REQUIREMENT OF A WRITING UNDER THE FIRST PARAGRAPH OF ARTICLE 17 OF THE CONVENTION OF 27 SEPTEMBER 1968 IS ONLY FULFILLED IF THE CONTRACT SIGNED BY THE TWO PARTIES INCLUDES AN EXPRESS REFERENCE TO THOSE GENERAL CONDITIONS .‘ [apologies for the capital letters: this is how ECJ judgments used to be reported].

The Court of Appeal noted that the standard terms and conditions were not included in the quote: rather, only a reference to a website was made.  The Court does entertain (but rejects) the possibility of the link being a ‘communication by electronic means’ within the meaning of article 23(2) of the jurisdiction Regulation.

I disagree with the guillotine application of Colzani’s reference to the inclusion of choice of court in the signed document. Surely Colzani can be applied mutatis mutandis to exclusively electronically available STCs. What’s more relevant in my view is the Convention’s (and now the Regulation’s) emphasis simply on making sure that parties have actually agreed to the clause: see Colzani at para 7: ‘BY MAKING SUCH VALIDITY SUBJECT TO THE EXISTENCE OF AN ‘ AGREEMENT ‘ BETWEEN THE PARTIES , ARTICLE 17 IMPOSES ON THE COURT BEFORE WHICH THE MATTER IS BROUGHT THE DUTY OF EXAMINING , FIRST , WHETHER THE CLAUSE CONFERRING JURISDICTION UPON IT WAS IN FACT THE SUBJECT OF A CONSENSUS BETWEEN THE PARTIES , WHICH MUST BE CLEARLY AND PRECISELY DEMONSTRATED .

A simple reference to standard terms and conditions in the paper contract signed by the parties, offers no more or less certainty that the party who agrees to the other’s conditions, has actually even read them (indeed as we all know, many never read the small print until it comes to litigation or complaint). What matters more, is that it can be reasonably assumed that they had at least the opportunity to do so.  That is no less the case in the event of STCs included on the web.

However, in such case, the party whose STCs are included on the web, needs to ensure that the other party can be reasonably assumed to have consulted them, in the version applicable to the contract at issue. In my view this requires the STCs to be properly displayed on the website, and, in the event of changes in versions, for them to be numbered accordingly (and for that number or date to have been referred to in the undersigned quote, or contract, or electronic order). On this, I do agree with the Court of Appeal: the Court pointed out that the weblinked STCs had not been recorded in durable fashion (see Article 23 of the Jurisdiction Regulation).

Geert.

 

 

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The scope of ‘civil and commercial’ in the Brussels I Regulation (compensation for expropriation under the Nazi regime), and application of joinder to non-EU based defendants: the ECJ in Sapir

The ECJ yesterday issued its ruling in Case C-645/11 Sapir. The issues under consideration were the application of the Brussels I Regulation to proceedings brought by a State (Berlin) against a group of defendants, some of whom were based outside the EU, some inside the EU but not in Germany, and only a limited number in Germany. The request for preliminary review has been made in proceedings between, on the one hand, Land Berlin and, on the other, Ms Sapir, Mr Busse, Ms Birgansky, Mr Rumney, Mr Ben-Zadok, Ms Brown and five other persons, concerning the repayment of an amount overpaid in error following an administrative procedure designed to provide compensation in respect of the loss of real property during persecution under the Nazi regime.

Jurisdiction against the non-German based defendants could only theoretically be established on the basis of Article 6(1) of the Regulation, which allows for plaintiff to identify an anchor defendant in one Member State, and drag other defendants not based there into those proceedings:

‘A person domiciled in a Member State may also be sued:

1.       where he is one of a number of defendants, in the courts for the place where any one of them is domiciled, provided the claims are so closely connected that it is expedient to hear and determine them together to avoid the risk of irreconcilable judgments resulting from separate proceedings; (…)

The first issue under consideration was the nature of the proceedings. There was a whiff of ‘public law’ surrounding the procedure, given its core foundation in administrative law procedures and the involvement of a public authority. However the ECJ, and Trstenjak AG with it, considered these not to be material to the nature of the proceedings: the request for repayment of part of the sum was made on the basis of a provision in German law (unjust enrichment) which was generally available and in which neither the public nature of plaintiff nor the substantial grounds on the basis of which compensation was granted, played any role: the basis and the detailed rules governing the bringing of the action were unrelated to the authority acting ius imperii.

The second issue concerned the defendants’ substantial argument against the claim of unjust enrichment: they argued that they are entitled to an amount which exceeds a share of the proceeds of sale as the amount realised through that sale failed to reach the market value of the property and that those additional compensation claims preclude the applicant’s claim of unjust enrichment.  The AG suggested a ‘close connection’ (and thus a possibility to invoke Article 6(1)), as the additional compensation claims lodged fit in perfectly with the identical situation of law and fact in the actions, which the ECJ requires for the application of Article 6(1). Identical legal basis is not required (in particular, one of the defendants, the lawyer representing a large part of the group, was being pursued on the basis of pure tort, rather than unjust enrichment). Only the German laws in question (the Vermögensgesetz and the Investitionsvorranggesetz) can provide the defendants with the legal basis to justify the excess amount they received, which also requires an assessment, for all of the defendants, in relation to the same factual and legal situation.

The third issue concerned the application of Article 6(1) to non-EU residents: this, the Court held, was not the case. Article 6(1) clearly refers expressly to defendants domiciled in the EU. In order to sue a co-defendant before the courts of a Member State on the basis of Article 6(1) , it is necessary that that person should be domiciled in another Member State.

In Case C-51/97 Réunion européenne, the ECJ had similarly (given the need to apply special jurisdictional rules restrictively) held that Article 6(1) cannot be applied to bring an action before the Court of a Member State against a defendant, domiciled in a different Member State, who could only be sued in that Member State by virtue of a joinder with a suit against a party not domiciled in any of the Member States.

The judgment in Sapic is not revolutionary, but useful.

Geert.

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No big surprises in Dutch Shell Nigeria / Royal Dutch Shell ruling

Postscript/2015: Shell’s arguments in appeal (in Dutch) on the specfic issue of jurisdiction, may be found here

As reported earlier, Shell’s top holding has been hauled before a Dutch court by a Dutch environmental NGO (Milieudefensie), seeking (with a number of Nigerian farmers) to have the mother holding being held liable for environmental pollution caused in Nigeria. Judgment came yesterday and generally is quite comforting for Shell (and other holding companies in similar situations).

The court stuck to its decision to join the cases, hence allowing Shell Nigeria to be pursued in the Dutch Courts, together with the holding company (against which jurisdiction was easily established under the Brussels I Regulation).  On this point, one imagines, Shell might appeal.

The court held against application of the Rome II Regulation for temporal reasons and did therefore not entertain any (unlikely) options in that Regulation which may  have led to Dutch law: the events which gave rise to the damage occurred before the entry into force of that Regulation. The Court therefore applies lex loci damni. If I am not mistaken, prior to Rome II, The Netherlands applied a more or less complex conflicts rule, not necessarily leading to lex loci damni, neither to lex loci delicti commissi, which was the rule in most EU Member States prior to the entry into force of the Rome II Regulation.

Nigerian law applied and any route to apply Dutch law was rejected.  Incompatibility with Dutch ordre public, for instance, was not withheld. Nigerian law running along common law lines, the court ran through negligence in tort, applied to environmental cases, leading amongst others to the inevitable Rylands v Fletcher. The  court found that the damage occurred because of sabotage, which under Nigerian law in principle exhonerated Shell Nigeria. Only for two specific instances of damage was liability withheld, for Shell Nigeria had failed to take basic precautions.

The conditions of Chandler v Cape (2012) to establish liability for the holding company, were not found to be met in the case at issue. The court did not establish a specific duty of care under Nigerian law (with the loop to the English common law) for Royal Dutch Shell (RDS), the mother company. A general CSR committment was not found not to alter that.

No doubt to be continued in various forms of appeal.

Geert.

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