EU Court of Justice says truck cartel damages claim is not time-barred

On June 22, 2022, the Court of Justice of the European Union (“the Court”) handed down an important judgment relating to actions for damages for breaches of EU competition law.  The Court held that time starts running for the purposes of bringing a claim for damages for losses arising from a breach of competition law found by the European Commission from the date on which the summary of the European Commission’s Decision is published in the European Union’s Official Journal, rather than from an earlier date, such as the European Commission’s press release announcing that companies have been fined for particular cartel behavior.  The Court also held that the provision of Directive 2014/104/EU (the “Directive”) introducing a presumption that a cartel has caused harm is a rule of substance and as such does not apply to any cartel behavior that ceased prior to the deadline for implementing the Directive in December 2016. 

The plaintiff, RM, had filed a complaint for damages on April 1, 2018, just over twenty months after the announcement in July 2016 of the European Commission’s decision finding that five European truck manufacturers -- including DAF Trucks NV and Volvo AB (publ.) -- had participated in an illegal cartel in violation of Article 101 of the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union and Article 53 of the European Economic Area Agreement.  The summary of the European Commission’s decision was published in April 2017 and the claim was brought just under a year later.  Taking the view that the Spanish one year limitation period for bringing an action for damages* started running with the July 2016 announcement that the European Commission had sanctioned the Trucks cartel, DAF and Volvo argued that RM’s claim was time-barred.  In due course, the Court was asked to opine on this question.

The Court, as is its wont, reformulated the Spanish court’s questions, addressing firstly whether the rules in question are substantive or procedural, and therefore whether they could be applicable in relation to a cartel that had ceased before those rules had entered into force.  The Court concluded that the limitation rules of the Directive, introducing a minimum 5 year limitation period for bringing competition damage claims, were substantive and, therefore, not applicable to RM’s claim.

Having reached this conclusion, the Court turned to the question of when the limitation period began to run, stating that “the limitation periods applicable to actions for damages for infringements of the competition law provisions of the Member States and of the European Union cannot begin to run before the infringement has ceased and the injured party knows, or can reasonably be expected to know, the information necessary to bring his or her action for damages.  Otherwise, the exercise of the right to claim compensation would be rendered virtually impossible or excessively difficult.”

Given this conclusion, the Court was left to consider when RM became apprised of the knowledge necessary to bring a damages claim.  There were two possibilities:  the date of publication of the press release issued by the European Commission about its decision in the cartel case, July 19, 2016, or the date of publication of the summary of the cartel decision in the Official Journal of the European Union, April 6, 2017.  After considering the legal effect, the level of detail, the purpose and the languages of publication of a press release versus a summary in the Official Journal, the court concluded that the limitation period began to run, in this case at least, on the date of publication of the summary in the Official Journal.

There were two other provisions of the Directive considered by the Court.  The first, empowering national courts to estimate the damage caused by a cartel, was held to be procedural and applicable to any claim for damages brought after the implementation of the Directive. The second, which introduced a presumption that cartels cause harm, was held to be substantive and not applicable in this case because the cartel conduct had ceased prior to the 2016 deadline for implementing the Directive.

The case was remanded to the provincial court for further proceeding.

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*The provisions of the Spanish law at issue are Articles 74(1) and Articles 76(2) and (3) of Ley 15/2007 de Defensa de la Competencia (Law 15/2007 on the protection of competition) of 3 July 2007 (BOE No 159 of 4 July 2007, p. 28848), as amended by Real Decreto-ley 9/2017.

CJEU press release | Judgment

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