Maher v Groupama Grand Est: Law Applicable to Direct Action Against Insurer

This post was written by Mrs Jenny Papettas, a PhD Candidate and Postgraduate Teaching Assistant at the University of Birmingham.

The Court of Appeal delivered its judgment in the case of Maher v. Groupama Grand Est. on 12 November 2009, upholding both the decision and reasoning of Blair J. in the Queen’s Bench Division. The case, concerning issues of applicable law in a direct action against an insurer, is noteworthy because it is illustrative of the type of case that will fall to be decided under Article 18 Rome II and serves as a reminder that individual Member State reasoning on these issues is obsolete under that Regulation.

The Claimants, an English couple, Mr. and Mrs. Maher, were involved in a collision in France with a van being driven negligently by French resident M Marc Krass.  M Krass was sadly killed in the collision. The claim was brought directly against M Krass’ third party liability insurer. Liability and the application of French law to the substantive issues in the case were not at issue. The outstanding issues to be determined by the court were; (1) Whether damages should be assessed in accordance with French law or English law, (2) Whether pre-judgment interest on damages should be determined in accordance with French law or English law.

The Assessment of Damages

Under English law the assessment of damages in tort claims falls to be decided as a procedural issue (Harding v. Wealands [2007] 2 AC 1). The issue in Maher was whether in a direct action against the tortfeasor’s insurer the issue was to be characterised as tortious, with damages being dealt with as a procedural issue under the lex fori or as a claim founded in contract, where assessment of damages is dealt with as a substantive issue by the applicable (French) law as stipulated in both the Rome Convention (implemented in English law by Contracts (Applicable Law) Act 1990, s.2 and Sch.1, Art.10(1)(c)) and the Rome I Regulation. Despite the Defendant’s arguments that the claim only arose because it was contractually obliged to indemnify the insured and that therefore the claim was contractual in nature, the Court, citing Macmillan Inc v. Bishopgate Investment Trust plc (No. 3) [1996]1 WLR 387, held that it was not the claim that fell to be characterised but each individual issue. Further citing Law Com Report No. 193 (Private international Law: Choice of Law in Tort and Delict (1990)) where it was stated that direct actions against liability insurers are better seen as an extension of a tortious action (para 3.51) the Court held that since liability was admitted and the insurer therefore had to meet the tortfeasor’s liability the claim was tortious with the consequence that assessment of damages was procedural and a matter for the lex fori.

Pre-judgment Interest

With regard to pre-judgment interest the Court found that the issue was split. The existence of a right to such interest was held to be a substantive issue whilst the calculation of any interest, being partially discretionary in nature under s 35A Supreme Court Act 1981, was procedural. However, although the quantification of interest would as a result be determined with reference to English law, s35A is flexible enough to allow the Court to apply French rates if it is necessary to achieve justice in the circumstances.

Anticipating  Rome II

Article 15 of Rome II provides a lengthy list of issues which will be determined by the applicable law, largely disposing of any possibility of subjecting different issues to different laws. This extends to the assessment of damages thereby expanding the scope of Rome II into areas previously classified as procedural under the traditional English substance /procedure dichotomy.  Indeed, it was acknowledged during Maher that the application of Rome II would have produced a different result in this regard.

However an intriguing question remains as to whether Article 18, which provides for direct actions against insurers, will be interpreted so that the injured party’s choice of either the applicable law or the law of the insurance contract will govern the whole claim or simply the question of whether a direct action can be permitted. Furthermore it will be interesting to see how the issue of characterisation plays out. For example, will the insurer be able to rely on the contractual limits of the policy where the applicable law to a direct action is determined by the law applicable under the Regulation. The only certainty is that such questions will have to be answered with reference to the autonomous definitions which are yet to develop and the methods currently employed by Member State courts will be obsolete for dealing with issues which fall within the remit of Rome II.