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.

Court of Justice confirms relevance of rights of defence in Trade Agency – Exequatur can be denied but only after individual review of the case

Article 34 of the Brussels I Regulation (jurisdiction in civil and commercial matters) enables a court, by way of derogation from the principles and objectives of the Regulation, to refuse to recognize a judgment given by a court of another Member State. The whole starting point of the Regulation and its antecedents was to avoid much recourse to refusal of recognition. Free movement of judgments lies at the very core of the foundations of European private international law.

Little wonder then that the Regulation leaves limited freedom for Member States authorities (including courts) who are asked to recognise and enforce another State’s judgment.

In Case C-619/10 Trade Agency, proceedings were underway between Trade Agency Ltd (‘Trade Agency’) and Seramico Investments Ltd (‘Seramico’) concerning the recognition and enforcement in Latvia  of a judgment in default delivered by the High Court of England and Wales. Saramico had filed suit against Trade Agency for payment of a sum just under 300.000 Sterling. Trade Agency entered no defence and the sum was awarded. Saremico then sought enforcement in Latvia. The Latvian court wondered whether Article 34(1)’s public policy exception, allowed it to deny ‘enforcement’ (what is meant is really ‘exequatur’) given that under the English system, an uncontested claim is summarily granted, without the judgment reviewing and confirming the legal merits of the case.

The UK had pointed out in the hearing at the Court of Justice that a judgment given in default of appearance, such as that given by the High Court in the main proceedings, cannot be obtained until, first, the applicant serves the claim form and the particulars of claim, containing a detailed description of the pleas in law and the material facts, to which the judgment itself impliedly refers, and, second, the defendant, although he has been informed of the legal proceedings instituted against him, does not appear or does not express his intention to submit a defence within the period prescribed.

The Court of Justice refused to disallow all scope for the Member State in which enforcement is sought, to refuse such enforcement in light of what seem to be serious procedural requirements under English law. However the court in which exequatur is sought, may only refuse after review of the individual merits of the case: it has to in other words review whether in the case at issue, the defendant knew of the applicant’s statement of claim and decided not to defend himself against it. It may not decide that the English system as such as contrary to public policy in the state of enforcement.

The exequatur procedure of the Brussels I Regulation will be overhauled in the current review. However it is exactly on issues of the rights of the defence, such as those raised in Trade Agency, that a number of Member States continue to insist that exequatur can never be entirely automatic, even among EU Member States.

Geert.

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