A Dutch district court has set what some believe may be a new landmark precedent in the area of private cartel enforcement in the European Union, including against South African company Sasol.
The case is what appears to be a fairly straight-forward “follow-on” civil action, i.e., a complaint brought in civil court by injured parties (or those who acquired those parties’ rights to sue) that is based entirely on a European Union Commission decision condemning illegal cartel activity within the common EU market.
My neighbors on the Avenue Louise here in Brussels, CDC (Cartel Damages Claims), had bought the rights to sue from various purchasers of paraffin wax and lodged the complaint against the “paraffin mafia” (Shell’s words, quoted by Neelie Kroes – also see here) in September 2011. The 13-year cartel (1992-2005)** may well result in sizeable civil damage awards (Sasol’s reduced EC fine alone was 318 million €) once the procedural and jurisdictional hurdles have been cleared. And this most recent ruling goes a long way in doing so. The key “procedural issues” that had to be resolved first were whether all of the cartel members could be sued in the Netherlands, even though not all of them operated in that country, and whether the pending EU court appeals against the 2008 Commission decision effectively stayed the parallel civil proceedings in the Dutch court.
The court ruled in favour of the plaintiff group on both accounts, holding that all cartelists could be sued together for damages in the jurisdiction in which any one of their fellow co-conspirators has its seat [here, that would notably be Royal Dutch Shell, ironically the cartel’s whistle-blower that escaped the EC ruling with a zero-€ fine] . That is, even though purported ring-leader Sasol or any of the other [non-Dutch] alleged cartelists may not have had any operations in the Netherlands, they can still be subject to a full-blown civil lawsuit there. In effect, the ruling says that the European Union’s antitrust decisions, combined with the civil protections afforded EU companies and citizens, creates a de facto long-arm statute, reaching beyond the traditional geographic jurisdictional boundaries.
In addition, it held that a pending appeal against an EC cartel decision should not result in an automatic stay of any civil proceedings, as this would unduly curtail the fundamental right to seek compensation of injured parties under EU law.
While I don’t read Dutch — and therefore cannot analyse the actual decision of the NL royal court — I trust that CDC summarised its findings accurately, even though the company clearly has a stake in this and thus a likely bias.
** According to Neelie Kroes’s speech, the cartelists initially met at the “Blue Salon” at a Hamburg hotel bar (my home town, coincidentally). I have a feeling it was this place — it’s always fun to visualise cartel activity in the flesh, just like “The Informant” did for moviegoers in 2009…: