By Jos Hoevenaars and Xandra Kramer, Erasmus University Rotterdam (postdoc and PI ERC consolidator project Building EU Civil Justice, Erasmus University Rotterdam)
As is illustrated in a series of blog posts on this website, the current pandemic also has an impact on the administration of justice and on international litigation. As regards collective redress, Matthias Weller reported on the mass litigation against the Austrian Federal State of Tyrol and local tourist businesses. The Austrian Consumer Protection Association (Österreichischer Verbraucherschutzverein, VSV) has been inviting tourists that have been in the ski areas in Tyrol – which turned into Corona infection hotspots – in the period from 5 March 2020 and shortly afterwards discovered that they were infected with the virus, to enrol for claims for damages against the Tyrolean authorities and the Republic of Austria. Hundreds of coronavirus cases in Iceland, the UK, Germany, Ireland, Norway, Denmark and the Netherlands can be traced back to that area. Currently over 4,000 (including nearly 400 Dutch nationals) have joined the action by the VSV.
It may be expected that other cases will follow as the global impact of the pandemic is overwhelming, both in terms of health and economic effects, and it seems that early warnings have been ignored. Like for instance the Volkswagen emission case, these events with global impact are those in which collective redress mechanisms – apart perhaps from piggybacking in pending criminal procedures – are the most suitable vehicles. This blog will address mass litigation resulting from the corona crisis and use the opportunity to bring a new Dutch act on collective action to the attention.
After the WHO declared the coronavirus a global emergency on 30 January 2020, and after the virus made landfall in Europe in February, the beginning of March still saw plenty of skiing and partying in Tyrolean winter sports resorts such as Ischgl and Sankt Anton. It later turned out that during that period thousands of winter sports tourists were infected with the corona virus and who, upon returning to their home countries, spread the virus throughout Europe. A group of Icelandic vacationers had already returned sick from Ischgl at the end of February. In response, Iceland designated Tyrol as a high-risk zone. They warned other countries in Europe, but these did not follow the Icelandic example.
The first alarm bells in Tyrol itself rang on 7 March 2020 when it became known that a bartender from one of the busiest and best-known après-ski bars in Ischgl, Café Kitzloch, had tested positive for the corona virus. A day later it appeared that the entire waiting staff tested positive. Still, the bar remained open until 9 March. Other bars, shops, restaurants were open even longer, and it took almost a week for the area to go into complete lockdown. The last ski lifts stopped operating on 15 March.
The public prosecutor in Tirol is currently investigating whether criminal offenses were committed in the process. The investigation started as early as 24 March, at least in part after German channel ZDF indicated that at the end of February there was already a corona infection in an après ski bar in Ischgl and that it had not been made public. Public officials in Tyrol might thus face criminal proceedings, and civil claims are to be expected later in the year. For instance Dutch media have reported that Dutch victims feel misinformed by the Austrian authorities and nearly 400 Dutch victims have joined the claim.
Corona-related Damage as Driver for International (Mass) Litigation
It is unlikely that COVID-19 related mass claims will be confined to the case of Tirol, and to damages resulting directly from infections and possible negligent endangerment of people by communicable diseases. The fall-out from the wide-spread lockdown measures and resulting economic impact on businesses and consumers alike, has been called a ‘recipe for litigation’ for representative organizations and litigation firms.
With the coronavirus upending markets, disrupting supply chains and governments enacting forced quarantines, the fallout from lockdowns as well as the general global economic impact will provide fertile grounds for lawsuits in a host of areas. Some companies are already facing legal action. For instance, GOJO, the producer of Purell hand sanitizer, is being accused of ‘misleading claims’ that it can prevent ‘99.9 percent of illness-causing germs’ (see for instance this NBC coverage), and law suits have been brought for price gouging by Amazon for toilet paper and hand sanitizer, and for sales of face masks through eBay (see here for a brief overview of some of the cases).
Further down the line, manufacturers may sue over missed deadlines, while suppliers could sue energy companies for halting shipments as transportation demand dwindles. Insurers are likely to find themselves in court, with businesses filing insurance claims over the coronavirus fallout. And in terms of labor law, companies may be held liable in cases where work practices have led to employees being exposed and infected with the virus. For instance, this March, in the US the nurses’ union filed a law suit against the New York State Department of Health and a few hospitals for unsafe working conditions (see for instance this CNN coverage). Already at the end of January, the pilots’ union at American Airlines Group Inc. took legal action to prevent the company from serving China, thereby putting its employees at risk (see for instance this CBS coverage).
Private care facilities too, like nursing homes that have seen disproportionate death rates in many countries, could face claims that they didn’t move quickly enough to protect residents, or didn’t have proper contingency plans in place once it became clear that the virus posed a risk especially to their clientele. Similarly, states have a responsibility for their incarcerated population and may face liability claims in case of outbreak in prison facilities. Airlines that have spent years in EU courts fighting and shaping compensation rules for passengers may well again find themselves before the Court of Justice pleading extraordinary circumstances beyond their control to avoid new payouts to consumers. And finally, governments’ careful weighing of public health against individual rights could result in mass claims in both directions.
Developments in the Netherlands: the WAMCA
Dutch collective redress mechanisms have been a subject of discussion in the EU and beyond. While we are not aware of cases related to COVID-19 having been brought or being prepared in the Netherlands so far, the latest addition to the Dutch collective redress mechanisms could prove to be useful. In the Netherlands, a procedure for a collective injunctive action has been in place since 1994. This was followed by a collective settlement scheme in 2005 (the Collective Settlement Act, WCAM) which facilitates collective voluntary settlement of mass damage. Especially the Shell and Converium securities cases have attracted widespread international attention. The decision by the Amsterdam Court of Appeal – having exclusive competence in these cases – has been criticized for casting the international jurisdiction net too wide in the latter case in particular (see for a discussion of private international law aspects Kramer 2014 and Van Lith 2010). These, and a number of other Dutch collective redress cases, have spurred discussions about the alleged risk of the Netherlands opening itself up to frivolous litigation by commercially motivated action groups, a problem that has often been associated with the US system. In an earlier blog post our research group has called for a nuanced approach as there are no indications that the Dutch system triggers abuse.
At the time of enacting the much discussed WCAM, the Dutch legislature deliberately chose not to include the possibility of bringing a collective action for the compensation of damages in an attempt to avoid some of the problematic issues associated with US class actions. However, last year, after many years of deliberating (see our post of 2014 on this blog on the draft bill) the new act enabling a collective compensatory action was adopted. The Collective Redress of Mass Damages Act (Wet afwikkeling massaschade in collectieve actie, WAMCA) entered into force on 1 January 2020. It applies to events that occurred on or after 15 November 2016.
As announced in an earlier post on this blog, this new act aims to make collective settlements more attractive for all parties involved by securing the quality of representative organizations, coordinating collective (damages) procedures and offering more finality. At the same time it aims to strike the balance between better access to justice in a mass damages claim and the protection of justified interests of persons held liable. The WAMCA can be seen as the third step in the design of collective redress mechanisms in the Dutch justice system, building on the 1994 collective injunctive action and the 2005 WCAM settlement mechanism. An informal and unauthorised English version of the new act is available here.
The new general rule laid down in Article 3:305a of the Dutch Civil Code, like its predecessor, retains the possibility of collective action by a representative association or foundation, provided that it represents these interests under the articles of association and that these interests are adequately safeguarded by the governance structure of the association or foundation. However, stricter requirements for legal standing have been added, effectively raising the threshold for access to justice. This is to avoid special purpose vehicles (SPVs) bringing claims with the (sole) purpose of commercial gain. In addition to a declaratory judgment a collective action can now also cover compensation as a result of the new act. In case more representatives are involved the court will appoint the most suitable representative organisation as exclusive representative. As under the old collective action regime, this has to be a non-profit organisation. The Claim Code of 2011 and the new version of 2019 are important regulatory instruments for representative organisations. Should parties come to a settlement, the WCAM procedural regime will apply, meaning that the settlement agreement will be declared binding by the Court of Appeal in Amsterdam if it fulfils the procedural and substantive requirements. This is binding for all parties that didn’t make use of the opt-out possibility.
Limited territorial scope and the position of foreign parties
To meet some of the criticism that has been voiced in relation to the extensive extraterritorial reach of the WCAM, the new act limits the territorial scope of collective actions.
First, the new Article 3:305a of the Dutch Civil Code contains a scope rule stating that a legal representative only has legal standing if the claim has a sufficiently close relationship with the Netherlands. A sufficiently close relationship with Dutch jurisdiction exists if:
(1) the legal person can make a sufficiently plausible claim that the majority of persons whose interests the legal action aims to protect have their habitual residence in the Netherlands; or
(2) the party against whom the legal action is directed is domiciled in the Netherlands, and additional circumstances suggest that there is a sufficiently close relationship with Dutch jurisdiction; or
(3) the event or events to which the legal action relates took place in the Netherlands
Though this is not an international jurisdiction rule – that would be at odds with the Brussels I-bis Regulation – this scope rule prevents that the Dutch court can decide cases such as the Converium case in which the settling company was situated abroad and only 3% of the interested parties were domiciled in the Netherlands. In fact, it is a severe restriction of the international reach of the Dutch collective action regime.
Second, another often debated issue is the opt-out system of the WCAM. While this makes coming to a settlement obviously much more attractive for companies and increases the efficiency of collective actions, an exception is made for collective actions involving foreign parties. Dutch parties can make use of an opt-out within a period to be set by the court of one month at least. However, for foreign parties the new act provides for a general opt-in regime for foreign parties. Article 1018 f (5) of the Dutch Code of Civil Procedure provides that persons who are not domiciled or resident in the Netherlands are only bound if they have informed the court registry within the period set by the court that they agree to having their interests represented in the collective action. There is a little leeway to deviate from this rule. The court may, at the request of a party, decide that non-Dutch domiciles and residents belonging to the precisely specified group of persons whose interests are being represented in the collective action, are subject to the opt-out rule.
The introduction by the WAMCA of a compensatory collective action complementing the injunctive collective action and providing a stick to the carrot of the WCAM settlement offers new opportunities, while increased standards of legal standing provide the necessary safeguards. However, the limitation of the scope of the new regime to cases that are closely related to the Netherlands – on top of the international jurisdiction rules – and deviating from the effective opt-out rule for foreign parties restrict the scope of Dutch collective actions. Time will tell what role the new Dutch collective action regime will play in major international cases, and whether it will be of use to provide redress for some of the culpable damage caused by the present pandemic.