Published: May 2017Contents
i) What are the hot topics?
The tide is clearly turning with important legislation pending in many jurisdictions throughout the world to provide a greater role for private enforcement and courts beginning to act in such cases. In Japan, for example, over a decade passed from adoption of private rights legislation until a private plaintiff prevailed in an injunction case for the first time; also it is only recently that a derivative shareholder action has been filed. In other jurisdictions, the transformation has been more rapid. In Korea, for example, private actions have been brought against an alleged oil refinery cartel, sugar cartel, school uniform cartel and credit card VAN cartel. In addition, the court awarded damages to a local confectionery company against a cartel of wheat flour companies. In the past few years, some jurisdictions have had decisions that clarified the availability of the pass-on defence (e.g., France and Korea) as well as indirect-purchaser claims (e.g., Korea).
Moreover, we are at a critical turning point in the EU: by 2016, EU Member States were required to implement the EU’s directive on private enforcement into their national laws. Even without this directive, many of the Member States throughout the European Union have increased their private antitrust enforcement rights. Indeed, private enforcement developments in some jurisdictions have supplanted the EU’s initiatives. The English and German courts, for instance, are emerging as major venues for private enforcement actions. Collective actions are now recognised in Sweden, Finland and Denmark. Italy also recently approved legislation allowing for collective damages actions and providing standing to sue to representative consumers and consumer associations, and France and England have also taken steps to facilitate collective action/class action legislation. Differences will continue to exist from jurisdiction to jurisdiction regarding whether claimants must ‘opt out’ of collective redress proposals to have their claims survive a settlement (as in the UK), or instead must ‘opt in’ to share in the settlement benefits. Even in the absence of class action procedures, the trend in Europe is towards the creation and use of consumer collective redress mechanisms. For instance, the Netherlands permits claim vehicles to aggregate into one court case the claims of multiple parties.
ii) Tell us about any key legal developments – recent or pending – and their international impact.
Until the last decade or so, the United States was one of the few outliers in providing an antitrust regime that encouraged private enforcement of the antitrust laws. Brazil provided another, albeit more limited, example: Brazil has had private litigation arise involving non-compete clauses since the beginning of the 20th century, and monopoly or market closure claims since the 1950s.
In the last decade, we have seen other regimes begin to provide for private competition litigation in their courts, typically, as discussed below, only after (i.e., as a ‘follow on’) to public enforcement. In some jurisdictions (e.g., Lithuania, Romania, Switzerland and Venezuela), however, private actions remain very rare and there is little, if any, precedent establishing the basis for compensatory damages or discovery, much less for arbitration or mediation. Also, other jurisdictions (e.g., Switzerland) still have very rigid requirements for ‘standing’, which limit the types of cases that can be initiated.
iii) What are the biggest opportunities and challenges for practitioners and clients?
Private competition litigation can be an important complement to public enforcement in the achievement of compliance with the competition laws. For example, antitrust litigation has been a key component of the antitrust regime for decades in the United States. The US litigation system is highly developed – using extensive discovery, pleadings and motions, use of experts and, in a small number of matters, trials to resolve the rights of the parties. The process imposes high litigation costs (both in time and money) on all participants, but promises great rewards for prevailing plaintiffs. The usual rule that each party bears its own attorneys’ fees is amended for private antitrust cases such that a prevailing plaintiff is entitled to its fees as well as treble damages. The costs and potential rewards to plaintiffs create an environment in which a large percentage of cases settle on the eve of trial. Arbitration and mediation are still rare, but not unheard of, in antitrust disputes. Congress and the US Supreme Court have attempted to curtail some of the more frivolous litigation and class actions by adopting tougher standards and ensuring that follow-on litigation exposure does not discourage wrongdoers from seeking amnesty. Although these initiatives may, on the margin, decrease the volume of private antitrust litigation in the United States, the environment remains ripe for high levels of litigation activity, particularly involving intellectual property rights and cartels.