Shipping cartels: BMW Pursues Civil Damages Claim against certain Carriers

By Stephany Torres

BMW plans to lodge a claim in South Africa for damages against international car-carriers and shipping companies which have been found guilty or have pleaded guilty to competition law contraventions, including Japanese-based Mitsui O.S.K. Lines (“MOL”) and K-Line Shipping South Africa, the local subsidiary of Kawasaki Kisen Kaisha (“K-Line”), Norway’s Wallenius Wilhelmsen Logistics AS (“WWL”) and Nippon Yusen Kabushiki Kaisha (“NYK”).  BMW is seeking compensation for the losses it alleges to have suffered as a result of the anti-competitive price-fixing arrangements between the car carriers.

BMWship.jpgBMW’s case stems from an amnesty application, by which MOL approached the South African Competition Commission (“the Commission”) in terms of its Corporate Leniency Policy (“CLP”), which outlines a process through which the Commission may grant a self-confessing cartel member, who approaches the Commission first, immunity for its participation in cartel activity upon the cartel member fulfilling specific requirements which includes providing information and cooperating fully with the Commission’s investigation.  Says John Oxenham, a South African competition lawyer, “if the Commission grants an applicant what is called ‘conditional immunity’, a possible outcome is the complete avoidance of a fine, which could otherwise be calculated at up   to 10% of domestic revenues, including exports.”  That said, conditional antitrust immunity, does not offer full exoneration from potential other liability in respect of the conduct for which the Competition Commission granted immunity.

It is notable that MOL, NYK and WWL subsequently agreed to cooperate with the Commission in prosecuting K-Line.

On further investigation by the Commission it found that K-Line, MOL, NYK and WWL fixed prices, divided markets and tendered collusively in contravention of section 4(1)(b)(i), (ii) and (iii) of the Competition Act no 89 of 1998 in respect of the roll-on/roll-off (Ro-Ro) ocean transportation of Toyota vehicles from South Africa to Europe, the Mediterranean Coast of North Africa and the Caribbean Islands via Europe, West Africa, East Africa and the Red Sea.

The Commission’s investigation found that from at least 2002 to 2013 K-Line, MOL, NYK and WWL colluded on a tender issued by Toyota SA Motors (“TSAM”) to transport Toyota vehicles from South Africa abroad by sea.  The Commission further found that K-Line, MOL, NYK and WWL agreed on the number of vessels that they were to operate on the South Africa to Europe routes at agreed intervals or frequencies.

In addition, the Commission found that K-Line, MOL, NYK and WWL agreed on the freight rates that they were to charge TSAM for the shipment of Toyota vehicles.

International competition authorities including authorities in the US, Canada, Japan, China and Australia investigated this case and, in recent years, imposed large fines on the respective cartelists for engaging in market division and price fixing.  In February 2018, Wallenius Wilhelmsen agreed to pay a large fine to the EU.  Höegh Autoliners has reportedly been summoned to a court meeting in South Africa in March 2018.

 

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