The European Court of Justice (ECJ) recently ruled that a jurisdiction clause does not need to refer expressly to disputes arising from a breach of competition law where damages are claimed based on Art. 102 TFEU (i.e., for abuse of a dominant position). This contrasts with the ECJ’s position in follow-on cartel damages claims (under Art. 101 TFEU), where a jurisdiction clause must specifically refer to disputes concerning an infringement of competition law.
In a landmark ruling, the EU’s top court, the European Court of Justice (ECJ) in Kone and Others C-557/12 of 5 June 2014, has held that, where a cartel causes competing companies to increase their prices, the members of the cartel may be held liable for losses incurred by victims of those price increases.
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EU National Courts May Have to Order Recovery of State Aid Before European Commission Makes Final Decision
The European Court of Justice decided on 21 November 2013 that EU national courts must assume that a measure qualifies as State aid, if the European Commission has opened an in-depth investigation into that measure.
This judgment is relevant to all cases in which the disputed measure was already granted, or is planned to be granted, and the European Commission has opened an in-depth investigation but not yet made a final decision on whether or not the measures qualify as State aid.
The European Court of Justice (ECJ) decided on 21 November 2013 in Deutsche Lufthansa AG v Flughafen Frankfurt-Hahn GmbH (C-284/12) on the obligations placed on national courts in EU Member States that have been asked by a third party to order the recovery of State aid that was granted to a beneficiary without approval by the European Commission.
The ECJ stated that, even though the assessment carried out by the European Commission in its decision to open an in-depth investigation is preliminary in nature, the decision to open an investigation has legal effect and is therefore binding for national courts in that they must find that the measure qualifies as State aid. If the aid was granted without approval by the European Commission, the national court will have to order its recovery.
EU Member States cannot implement measures that qualify as State aid within the meaning of Article 107(1) of the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union (TFEU) until those measures have been approved by the European Commission (“the standstill obligation”, established in Article 107(3)(3) TFEU). The European Commission has exclusive competence to approve State aid.
National courts may, however, find an infringement of the standstill obligation and order the recovery of State aid that was granted without European Commission approval. Although national courts may not authorise State aid, they are permitted to decide whether or not a measure qualifies as State aid.
State aid investigations by the European Commission begin with a first phase, in which the European Commission requests information from the relevant EU Member State and gives the State the opportunity to give its views on the qualification of the relevant measures as State aid and grounds for their authorisation.
In complex cases, the European Commission generally opens an in-depth investigation. When making its decision to initiate an in-depth investigation, the European Commission has to provide an initial assessment of the measure and explain why it has come to the preliminary conclusion that the measure qualifies as State aid.
In the case at hand, the competitor of an alleged aid beneficiary approached a German court seeking recovery of alleged aid given to the beneficiary and suspension of its implementation. According to the appellant, the measure qualified as State aid, was granted without approval by the European Commission and was therefore in violation of the standstill obligation. The European Commission opened an in-depth State aid investigation into the relevant measures in 2006, but the final decision is still outstanding.
Question Referred by [...]
In the wake of the seminal European Court of Justice (ECJ) ruling in case C-360/09 – Pfleiderer AG v Bundeskartellamt, Amtsgericht Bonn (Bonn local court), in a decision rendered on 18 January 2012 (case 51 Gs 53/09), has refused to give a damages claimant access to leniency submissions held by the German Federal Cartel Office (FCO). Although strongly welcomed by the FCO, the decision is a blow to potential damages claimants in Germany, especially as it is not open to appeal.
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In Elf Aquitaine SA v Commission, the European Court of Justice ruled on 29 September 2011 that Elf Aquitaine was not jointly and severally liable as a parent company for the involvement of its wholly owned subsidiary in the cartel for monochloroaecetic acid. Taken with a number of recent judgments, this suggests that European courts are getting tougher with the Commission on parental liability.
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A recent Decision of the European Court of Justice shows once more that it is still next to impossible for a parent company to rebut the presumption of liability for its subsidiary’s conduct. Nevertheless, companies with subsidiaries operating in the EU would be well-served to consider reinforcing their compliance programmes throughout their groups. Reinforcing compliance is more likely to reduce competition law risks for parent companies than, for example, a strategy of distancing itself from its subsidiaries.
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