The Alexandros resurfaces – Greek proceedings may turn out to be an expensive torpedo!

Update 19 September 2019  the relevant Greek Court of Appeal has refused to recognise the judgments awarding damages, on account of ordre public. Appeal with the Supreme Court and CJEU reference seem likely.

I have reported before on the lis alibi pendens issue in the Alexandros litigation. (The left-over claims as identified in my previous post were, I understand, dropped, and hence the need for ECJ referral subsided – Hill Dickinson have a good summary of the various proceedings here). The Court of Appeal on the 18th of July held on the now (following the Supreme Court’s intervention) remaining issue of declarations, damages and indemnities in respect of the owners’ proceedings in Greece seeking damages from the insurers, despite proceedings for sums due under the relevant insurance policies having been settled in England pursuant to a choice of forum clause. (Apologies for this all being a bit dense – reading my previous post helps). (Greek courts in fact rejected the claims in April).

The left-over issue essentially boils down to the question whether despite the ECJ’s prohibition of anti-suit injunctions for subject-matter falling within the Brussel I-Regulation, Member States courts are free to award damages to the party suing elsewhere in the EU in spite of a choice of court agreement between parties. The Court of Appeal held that they are. It justifiably, in my view, distinguished Turner v Grovit . In Turner v Grovit, the ECJ is concerned with mutual trust and allowing (and indeed trusting) the courts in the other Member States to make their own, proper application of the Regulation. Turner and Grovit does not uphold jurisdiction for the other court: it upholds the opportunity for that other court properly to apply the Regulation, which may or may not lead it to uphold jurisdiction.

The judgment of the Court of Appeal re-enforces the attraction of English courts as a destination of choice: parties wishing to torpedo (a prospect less likely in the Brussels I-bis Regulation) may or may not succeed in convincing alternative courts of their jurisdiction. English courts since Turner cannot issue anti-suit. However they may still hold party liable for having breached the choice of court agreement.

Geert.

The Supreme Court considers ‘sharp practice’ vs torpedoes in The Alexandros

In the case of the Alexandros T, the UK Supreme Court had to consider the impact on UK proceedings, opened in response to proceedings in Greece, in a dispute in which the insurers of the ship were under the impression that things had been settled following earlier proceedings in England.

On 3 May 2006 the vessel Alexandros T sank and became a total loss 300 miles south of Port Elizabeth, with considerable loss of life. Her owners were Starlight Shipping Company (“Starlight”). They made a claim against their insurers, who denied liability on the basis that the vessel was unseaworthy with the privity of the assured, namely Starlight. The insurers also said that Starlight had failed properly to report and repair damage to the vessel. Suits and countersuits followed, in England, on the basis of an exclusive jurisdictional clause in the insurance agreements. On 13 December 2007, the 2006 proceedings had been settled between Starlight and the LMI (as well as various underwriters) for 100% of the claim, but without interest and costs, in full and final satisfaction of the claim.

In April 2011, nine sets of Greek proceedings, in materially identical form, were issued by Starlight and by a range of other interested parties, against the LMI and the underwriters. The claims are for compensation for loss of hire and loss of opportunity by Starlight and for pecuniary compensation due to moral damage. All the claims rely upon breaches of the Greek Civil and Criminal Code, not, as before, on the contractual arrangements. Since the issue of the Greek proceedings, the insurers have taken further steps and brought further proceedings in England. The insurers sought to enforce the settlement agreements. Starlight at al subsequently  sought a stay of the English proceedings under Article 27 or 28 of the Brussels I Regulation. The High Court refused. The Court of Appeal granted. The Supreme Court had to untie the knot.

The Brussels I Regulation (the Jurisdiction Regulation or ‘JR’) is quite strict on lis alibi pendens, as has been repeatedly emphasised on this blog. The ECJ, too, insists on a guillotine approach of lis alibi pendens, provided of course the conditions for its application are met. The lis alibi pendens rule of Article 27 JR obliges a Court to stay proceedings if another Member State court has already been seized in the same matter, and to trust the proper application by the latter of the jurisdictional grounds of the Regulation. Article 27 JR has given malevolent parties a means to obstruct proceedings, by seizing a court in a Member State with no or desperate grounds for jurisdiction, banking on the tardiness of its judicial proceedings to gain time and ‘torpedo’ the case of the bona fide party.

Article 27

1. Where proceedings involving the same cause of action and between the same parties are brought in the courts of different Member States, any court other than the court first seized shall of its own motion stay its proceedings until such time as the jurisdiction of the court first seized is established.

2. Where the jurisdiction of the court first seized is established, any court other than the court first seized shall decline jurisdiction in favour of that court.

Article 28

1. Where related actions are pending in the courts of different Member States, any court other than the court first seized may stay its proceedings.

2. Where these actions are pending at first instance, any court other than the court first seized may also, on the application of one of the parties, decline jurisdiction if the court first seized has jurisdiction over the actions in question and its law permits the consolidation thereof.

3. For the purposes of this Article, actions are deemed to be related where they 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 rule is (fairly) simple and clear: where the same action, between the same parties is brought before the courts of two Member States, Article 27 obliges the court seized second, to at least freeze its jurisdiction. The conditions for Article 27 to apply are that the case involves the same action, between the same parties. The ECJ has clarified in Gubish Machinenfabrik and in The Tatry what was already clearer in other language versions namely that Article 27 requires three identities: identify of parties; identify of object or ‘subject-matter’; and identity of cause. The English version and the German version mention ‘same parties’ and ‘same cause of action’ only: they do not expressly distinguish between the concepts of “object” and “cause” of action. The ECJ held in Gubish that ‘(T)he “cause of action” comprises the facts and the rule of law relied on as the basis of the action.’ , and added in Gantner Electronic that  in this respect account should be taken only of the claims of the respective applicants, to the exclusion of the defence submissions raised by a defendant.

Article 28, then, applies to actions which do not conform to the Article 27 conditions, e.g. for actions between different parties, however where the actions are so related that separate proceedings would risk irreconcilable judgments. The purpose of that provision is to avoid the risk of conflicting judgments and thus to facilitate the proper administration of justice in the Union – it gives much more flexibility to the courts of the Member States as to whether to apply the provision or not.

In the case of the Alexandros, the application of these two Articles led to extensive to and fro by counsel with Lord Clarke (at 51 ff) stating that the principles of Article 27 JR ‘require a comparison of the claims made in each jurisdiction and, in particular, consideration of whether the different claims have le même objet et la même cause without regard to the defences being advanced (…)  As I see it, Article 27 involves a comparison between the causes of action in the different sets of proceedings, not (as in Article 28) the proceedings themselves. (…) the analysis cannot involve a broad comparison between what each party ultimately hopes to achieve. The analysis simply involves a comparison between the claims in order to see whether they have the same cause and the same object.‘ He then suggested that Article 27 has no impact on the proceedings at issue – the English proceedings should not be stayed and in Lord Clarke’s view the matter is acte claire: no reference to the ECJ needed.

Lord Mance disagreed with this approach, essentially suggesting that both actions seek a declaration of non-liability and are therefore at least for some of them, the same action within the meaning of Article 27. Lest parties drop those claims (they have been given two weeks to do so), this question will be referred to the ECJ.

As for the application of Article 28, Lord Clarke suggest that the English Court should not exercise the possibility of a stay, inter alia in light of the exclusive choice of court clause previously agreed between the parties: ‘ I can see no reason why, in exercising that discretion under Article 28, the court second seised should not take into account the fact that the parties had previously agreed (or arguably agreed) an exclusive jurisdiction clause in favour of that court. On the contrary, depending upon the circumstances of the particular case, that seems to me to be likely to be a powerful factor in support of refusal of a stay.’ (at 95) On this, Lord Mance did not disagree, neither did he suggest referral to the ECJ.

The interpretation of Article 27 is therefore quite likely to end up at the ECJ: it is difficult to conceive that parties will drop those claims rather than retain the possibility of the ECJ siding with them.

The judgment to my knowledge is the first to examine Articles 27 and 28 JR at quite such length and with quite such expert counsel.

Geert.

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.