I OVERVIEW OF RECENT PRIVATE ANTITRUST LITIGATION ACTIVITY
The purpose of the legislation is to facilitate companies' and consumers' ability to claim compensation for competition damages. The legislation clarifies liability, limitation periods, compensation, right of recourse, the passing-on defence, disclosure and other procedural issues.
In February 2018, the Patent and Market Court dismissed a claim for damages by Net at Once, a telecommunications operator, against GothNet, a data communications service provider, for having abused its dominant position through price discrimination, margin squeeze, or both. Net at Once claimed that GothNet was the only market player with access to the relevant input needed to submit a tender in a public procurement for fibre connectivity. Net at Once stated that GothNet had applied lower prices in its own tender in the public procurement than it had offered to Net at Once for the same input, even though Net at Once was a wholesaler and not the end customer. The Court found that Net at Once had not proved that GothNet had a dominant position, and therefore the case was dismissed. The judgment has been appealed and is pending before the Patent and Market Court of Appeal.
In May 2018, the Supreme Court decided to not grant Tele2 and Yarps leave to appeal their follow-on damages cases brought against Telia, which in 2013 was found to have abused its dominant position through margin squeeze. The judgment of the Svea Court of Appeal thus became final, whereby both parties' claims were dismissed.
In July 2018, the Patent and Market Court delivered a judgment involving vertical price parity clauses. Visita, the organisation for the Swedish hospitality sector, had filed an action asking the Court to impose an injunction against Booking.com (Booking) to remove its vertical price parity clauses (clauses preventing hotels from setting lower prices on their own websites than the prices offered on Booking) in its agreements with hotels. Booking's horizontal price parity clauses had been found anticompetitive by the Swedish Competition Authority in 2015, resulting in a commitment from Booking to remove the clauses from their agreements. The Patent and Market Court found that the vertical price parity clauses had an anticompetitive effect and ordered Booking to cease applying such clauses, subject to a fine if non-compliant. The judgment has been appealed and is pending before the Patent and Market Court of Appeal.
II GENERAL INTRODUCTION TO THE LEGISLATIVE FRAMEWORK FOR PRIVATE ANTITRUST ENFORCEMENT
The basic antitrust prohibitions in Swedish competition law mirror the prohibitions in Articles 101 and 102 of the Treaty of the Functioning of the European Union (TFEU), and include prohibitions against agreements between undertakings that restrict competition (Chapter 2, Section 1 of the Competition Act4) and abuse of a dominant position (Chapter 2, Section 7 of the Competition Act).
Agreements and clauses that infringe the competition prohibitions are void where anticompetitive cooperation is statutorily void, and conducts constituting an abuse of a dominant position are void according to established court practice.
Chapter 3, Section 25 of the Competition Act establishes a right to damages for parties injured because of infringements of Chapter 2, Sections 1 or 7 of the Competition Act or Articles 101 or 102 TFEU. Chapter 2, Section 1 of the Competition Damages Act establishes a liability to make up for the damage caused by an infringement. A private action for claims for damages on the basis that an agreement, provision or conduct is in violation of the Swedish or EU competition rules may be brought in Sweden, either as a standard private action under the general procedural rules or as a class action under the rules of the Class Action Act.5
Since September 2016, the Patent and Market Court has jurisdiction over competition damages actions as well as competition cases brought by the Swedish Competition Authority. The Patent and Market Court of Appeal is the court of second, and final, instance in such cases. Thus, any action for competition damages in Sweden should be filed with the Patent and Market Court.
A finding of an infringement by a competition authority is not required before a private antitrust action is initiated. A claimant can provide other evidence that the defendant is in breach of the provisions of the Competition Act as basis for its claim against the defendant. However, the Competition Damages Act stipulates that a finding of a breach of the provisions in the Competition Act in a final ruling may not be reexamined in a subsequent action for damages even if the claimant is not explicitly mentioned in the decision. This is a change from the earlier Swedish legal tradition, which considered judgments as only binding between the parties and an evidentiary fact (which can be rebutted) in all other cases.
The rules on statutory limitations have also been changed. Prior to the Competition Damages Act, the right to damages for breach of the Competition Act or Articles 101 or 102 TFEU lapsed if no claim was brought within 10 years from the date on which the injury was sustained (i.e., when the infringement occurred). In practice, with the long handling times of the authorities and courts, this meant that the right to damages often had lapsed by the time of a final and binding judgment. Therefore, the Competition Damages Act stipulates a limitation period of five years from when the infringement ceased and the claimant became aware of, or would reasonably have been aware of, the anticompetitive behaviour, that this behaviour caused damages and the identity of the infringer. Previously, there were also no rules on a standstill or interruption of the limitation period during the time that a competition authority investigated the issue or while legal proceedings were conducted. Such rules are included in the Competition Damages Act, stipulating that a limitation period is suspended while a competition authority takes action in the case of the infringement to which the claim relates. A new limitation period commences from the day when there is a legally binding decision on the infringement or if the authority concludes its investigation in another manner.
As a general rule, if there is more than one infringer, the infringers are jointly and severally liable for damages caused by their infringement. However, the Competition Damages Act includes certain limitations on joint and several liability, such as when the infringer's market share, at any point in time during the infringement, is below 5 per cent or where the infringer has been part of a leniency programme.
In proceedings for damages under Chapter 3, Section 25 of the Competition Act, the main rule is that the plaintiff has the burden of proof in relation to the infringement, intent or negligence, the injury suffered, and the causal link between the infringement and the injury. However, in relation to cartel infringements, there is a presumption that the cartel infringement caused the damage. The claimant can in those cases, therefore, concentrate on the question of proving the size of its loss. As regards the passing-on defence, the burden of proof lies with the defendant. Under general principles of Swedish procedural law, once a party has discharged its burden of proof in a given respect, the burden then shifts to the other party.
Under the Arbitration Act,6 Section 1, the civil law consequences of competition law breaches may be the subject of arbitration. The main civil law consequences of competition law are that any agreement that is prohibited pursuant to the rules on anticompetitive agreements between undertakings is automatically void, and the right to damages for competition infringements.
Infringements of competition laws may cause damage in several jurisdictions. The EU Damages Directive does not regulate these jurisdictional issues. In Sweden, it will be the Brussels I Regulation and the Lugano Convention that regulate whether a Swedish court has jurisdiction in a private competition case involving EEA members. In cases involving non-EU States, there is no general rule determining whether Sweden has jurisdiction, so cases are evaluated on a case-by-case basis; however, basically the Swedish forum rules follow the general principle that actions should be brought in the state where the defendant resides or has its seat. Alternatively, Swedish courts also have jurisdiction if the infringement took place or if the damage occurred in Sweden. Swedish courts also recognise prolongation agreements, where the parties – if at least one of them is domiciled in a Member State – have agreed that Swedish courts should have jurisdiction to try a claim for antitrust damages.
As long as Swedish courts have jurisdiction, private actions may also be brought against foreign corporations or individuals and by foreign corporations or individuals. However, it should be noted that foreign (non-EEA domiciled) claimants may, if the defendant requests it, be required to provide security, usually in the form of a bank guarantee, covering all legal costs that may be awarded to the defendants.
As regards the choice of law, in cases involving companies from within the EU, Swedish courts will apply the Rome I Regulation Articles 4 to 8 to cases where the parties have a contractual relationship, and the Rome II Regulation where the claim regards indirect damages: that is, Article 4.1 (the law of the country where the damages arose), Article 6.3 (where markets have been affected or are likely to be affected) or, where competition in several countries has been or is likely to have been affected, Swedish law, if a market in Sweden has been directly and substantially affected.
Anyone who has suffered damage caused by anticompetitive behaviour may file a claim for damages. Standing is not limited to those directly affected by the anticompetitive behaviour: indirect purchasers may also bring claims. As mentioned above, corporations and individuals from other jurisdictions may also bring claims before a Swedish court provided that they are considered undertakings within the meaning of the Competition Act (i.e., a natural or legal person engaged in activities of an economic or commercial nature).
The defendant in the proceedings is the corporation that has been found to infringe a competition law provision. In other words, an action for damages cannot be brought against an employee or director of an infringing corporation.
V THE PROCESS OF DISCOVERY
The Swedish legal system does not provide for discovery in the true sense of the term. Under the Swedish system, exchanges of documents pretrial may, generally, only be made on a voluntary basis. However, within the framework of a court proceeding (i.e., shortly before or during the proceeding), there is a general obligation on a person (natural or legal) in possession of a document that may have evidentiary value to disclose the document (procedural duty of disclosure). The rules on disclosure of evidence are found in Chapter 38 of the Code of Judicial Procedure,7 and require that a party seeking an order to produce evidence should identify the document and explain what information is included in the document.
As a general principle, documents received or prepared by a public authority are public. This principle is, however, subject to a number of exceptions in the Public Access to Information and Secrecy Act:8 the Competition Authority's file, and information about an undertaking's business operations, inventions and research results, are treated as confidential if the undertaking may be expected to suffer injury if such information is disclosed.
Furthermore, such documents that the Competition Authority holds and that contain declarations within a leniency programme, settlement briefs, written responses and other information that have been submitted to the Competition Authority, and information provided by the Competition Authority to the parties (such as a draft statement of objection, or a draft settlement decision) and settlement briefs that have been recalled, may not be the subject of a production order as long as the Competition Authority is still handling the case. The three latter categories may be subject to a document production order once the Competition Authority has closed its proceeding.
The Competition Damages Act also stipulates that declarations made within a leniency programme and settlement briefs are not to be produced as evidence. Certain other categories of documents may also only be produced by the party who has obtained them from the Competition Authority, or a person who has acquired their rights. This is a limitation of the fundamental procedural rules in Sweden on free trial of evidence and free provision of evidence.
Typically, confidentiality is only maintained as regards third parties, and not as regards a party to the proceedings. However, courts have the authority, under criminal responsibility, to prohibit counsel, management or parties from providing certain documents received during the court proceedings relating to competition damages to third parties in order to prevent a 'trade with documents'.
To ensure the secrecy of documents that a court has received through access to evidence from leniency statements and any settlement submissions, new legislation entered into force in April 2018 to safeguard the secrecy of those documents when handled by the court. A party would only be allowed to access such documents to the extent the court finds it appropriate.
VI USE OF EXPERTS
Cases before the Patent and Market Court shall be heard by two legally trained judges and two economists. Swedish courts may also, at the request of one of the parties, appoint experts and economists to establish violations and prove damage. The courts may also, at the request of a party, request that the Competition Authority calculates the damage, but the Competition Authority has a right to refuse to provide such assistance. Finally, the parties may also use their own economic experts. If the other party requests so, the expert must provide a written opinion to the court. If more than one party introduces expert witnesses, they are either heard on their own or jointly, the latter being a process known as hot tubbing.
VII CLASS ACTIONS
The Competition Damages Act, Section 2, mandates class actions. Such class actions shall be brought in accordance with the Class Action Act, which already mandated class actions for competition damages. No antitrust class proceedings have thus far been brought in Sweden.
There are three forms of class actions:
- a private class action that may be initiated by any person or entity, provided that such person or entity has a claim of its own and is a member of the class;
- an organisation class action that may be brought by certain organisations without them having claims of their own. Such actions may be initiated by consumer and labour organisations, and must, as a general rule, concern disputes between consumers and providers of goods or services; and
- a public class action that may be initiated by an authority authorised by the government to act as plaintiff and litigate on behalf of a group of class members. This form of action is intended to allow authorities to pursue claims where the public interest, in a broad sense, suggests that action should be taken.
Bringing a class action requires that the questions of fact must be common or similar to the entire class. Further, the group of claimants must be suitable with regard to size and character, and be well defined to enable individuals to establish whether they are covered by the class action.
Claimants in private class actions and organisation class actions must, in general terms, be represented by a member of the Swedish Bar Association.
Note that collective settlements require judicial authorisation: the court must approve any settlement entered into by the plaintiff on behalf of the group members. Such approval will be given unless the terms of the settlement are unreasonable or discriminatory.
In practice, the procedural questions regarding whether class actions will be approved take considerable time to decide, and in one case had to be finally settled by the Supreme Court several years later. The practical obstacles have, therefore, meant that there have been only a few class actions. For the first 10 years since the law was enacted we are aware of only approximately 10 cases in total.
The main benefits of class actions are the cost-sharing aspect, and that in some cases, the initiation of preparatory acts to gather members for a class action has proved to have a definite effect on the defendant's will to enter into settlement negotiations.
VIII CALCULATING DAMAGES
A prerequisite for receiving compensation is that the competition prohibitions were infringed wilfully or through neglect.
Compensation for damage caused by an infringement includes compensation for factual loss (financial loss or loss of, or damage to, property) (damnum emergens) and loss of income (including loss of interest) (lucrum cessans). The objective of damages awards for infringements of competition law is to restore the claimant's financial situation to that which it would have been had the infringement never occurred. Therefore, when setting damages, the courts will compare the claimant's actual financial situation with the hypothetical financial situation absent the infringement. Compensation will also reflect other detrimental effects on the plaintiff's business, even those of a more long-term or difficult-to-quantify nature (such as loss of goodwill or a detrimental impact on an intellectual property right).
The burden of proof lies with the claimant. However, the Code of Procedure allows the court, on the basis of the evidence provided in the case, to estimate the damages based on generally accepted principles of experience and reasonability. However, a claimant cannot rely totally on this rule, and is still required to provide some evidence of the extent of its damage to allow the court to base its finding on some ground.
Sweden does not recognise punitive damages.
The amount of the damages can be reduced if the plaintiff has contributed, by fault or negligence, to the injury sustained. If the plaintiff has benefited from the infringement, this too would have an impact on the amount of damages awarded. Compensation will also be adjusted for any settlement or agreement between the parties. Fines imposed by competition authorities, however, are not taken into account when determining damages.
The Competition Damages Act stipulates that interest will accrue on the compensation amount, due from the time the damage occurred. The interest rate is 2 per cent above the reference rate of the Central Bank from the time the damage was caused until legal proceedings to claim compensation were initiated. Thereafter, the interest rate is 8 per cent above the reference rate.
In general, the losing party bears the legal costs. The winning party can thus recover all reasonable litigation costs from the losing party. The costs may also be apportioned between the parties depending on the degree of success of each party.
In the case of class actions, where the defendant is liable for the claimant's litigation costs but is unable to pay, group members have a duty to use the received compensation to pay for the claimant's litigation costs.
As mentioned in Section III, under Swedish law, a non-EEA resident bringing an action before a Swedish court against a Swedish national or legal person must, at the defendant's request, furnish security to guarantee payment of the costs for the judicial proceedings, in the event that such person or company is ordered to reimburse the costs.
IX PASS-ON DEFENCES
When quantifying damages, the passing-on defence is available in principle. Swedish law only recognises a right to compensation for actual damage. Thus, the compensation should be reduced by an amount equivalent to any overcharge the injured party has passed on to its buyers or any undercharge the injured party has passed on to its suppliers. It is the defendant who has the burden of proof to show that the overcharge has been passed on. An earlier judgment addressing the passing-on question will be given evidentiary effect in a case before a Swedish court.
In relation to indirect buyers or suppliers, the Competition Damages Act provides a rule corresponding to Article 14 of the Damages Directive stating that when calculating the compensation, an overcharge (or a surcharge) will, unless otherwise proven, be considered to have been passed on to an indirect buyer (or supplier) if the infringement caused an overcharge (surcharge) for the direct buyer (or supplier). Thus, an indirect buyer is only required to prove that the defendant has infringed competition law provisions, that the infringement has led to an overcharge, and that the indirect buyer has purchased the goods or services covered by the infringement or goods and services that include goods and services covered by the infringement.
X FOLLOW-ON LITIGATION
A competition law infringement is not a criminal offence under Swedish law. There is therefore no specific provision covering the situation where criminal proceedings precede a damages case. In Sweden, corporations, with the exception of corporate fines, cannot be subject to criminal proceedings: only natural persons can be guilty of a criminal offence. On the other hand, as noted in Section IV, natural persons cannot be subject to a claim for compensation.
As regards corporations that have been part of a leniency programme, there are limitations concerning what evidence can be invoked against them. Their joint and several liability is also limited. Under Swedish law, the term joint and several liability means that if several parties are liable for damage caused by them, then a claim can be brought against any of them for the same amount as if that party alone had been liable for the damage (i.e., the whole amount). However, in relation to a corporation that has been part of a leniency programme, the obligation to pay compensation is limited to the loss that it has caused its direct and indirect buyers and suppliers. As regards damage caused to other parties than that undertaking's direct or indirect buyers or suppliers, its responsibility is limited to an amount corresponding to its share of the damage.
Written correspondence to and from external lawyers, held by the lawyer or by the client, is protected by legal privilege and may not be subject to a court order to produce such document. External lawyers are also prevented from giving evidence on matters confided to them in their practice. Advice from in-house lawyers is not legally privileged in Sweden (essentially due to the fact that an in-house lawyer cannot be a member of the Swedish Bar Association).
As mentioned in Section V, documents submitted to a public authority are public, and only information on an undertaking's business operations, inventions and research results (i.e., trade secrets) is treated as confidential.
XII SETTLEMENT PROCEDURES
As regards settlements with the Swedish Competition Authority, the Competition Authority may decide on an administrative fine if the infringement is established and all parties agree. A fine order that has been accepted is considered a legally binding judgment.
It is up to the undertaking to approve or reject the suggested administrative fine. In those cases where the undertaking does not approve the suggested fine, the Competition Authority will take legal action and request the court to order the undertaking to pay the fine. In these cases, the Competition Authority is bound by its earlier request and cannot claim a higher fine than it had offered to the undertaking.
As indicated above, a settlement requires that the infringement is established. This means that the Competition Authority will not accept a settlement where there are uncertainties regarding the course of events, or where the case involves legal issues that can be of importance for the determination of similar cases. If the Competition Authority believes that a case is suitable for settlement, it will inform the undertaking of this in connection with its draft statement of objection.
Under the Arbitration Act, Section 1, the civil law consequences of competition law may be the subject of arbitration. Arbitration requires an agreement between the parties to settle an issue by arbitration. A party must also invoke an arbitration agreement on the first occasion that a party pleads its case on the merits in the court. The invocation of an arbitration agreement raised at a later occasion will have no effect unless the party had a legal excuse and invoked such as soon as the excuse ceased to exist. A party will forfeit its right to invoke the arbitration agreement as a bar to court proceedings where the party has opposed a request for arbitration, has failed to appoint an arbitrator in due time, or fails, within due time, to provide its share of the requested security for compensation to the arbitrators.
During the pendency of a dispute before arbitrators or prior thereto, a court may, irrespective of the arbitration agreement, issue decisions in respect of security measures as the court has jurisdiction to issue.
XIV INDEMNIFICATION AND CONTRIBUTION
Litigation may be funded by third parties. There is nothing hindering claimants or defendants from deciding to share the cost between themselves, although they are as a rule held jointly and severally liable for the legal costs of the counterparty.
The Swedish Bar Association does not accept contingency fees, with one exception: within a class action framework, a claimant may agree with his or her counsel (who must be a member of the Swedish Bar Association) that a fee should depend of the outcome of the case. Such an agreement will, however, require the approval of the court.
Note that in the case of class actions, where the defendant is liable for the claimant's litigation costs but is unable to pay, group members have a duty to use the received compensation to pay for the claimant's litigation costs.
XV FUTURE DEVELOPMENTS AND OUTLOOK
Currently, the Swedish Competition Authority investigates matters but lacks decision-making powers regarding sanctions against infringements, although it has had decision-making powers regarding mergers since 1 January 2018. To act against infringements, the Authority must bring an action in the Patent and Market Court (and subsequently the Patent and Market Court of Appeal), and it is the court that has the authority to render decisions in these matters. The total time required for processing competition law matters in the Authority and the courts today is at least three-and-a-half years from the launch of a case until a decision in the first instance. The total time for final decisions to be examined at the next level is currently estimated to be five to seven years. The recently adopted judicial reform, with the introduction of specialised courts for cases under competition law, should lead to reduced turnaround times in court.
A government-assigned public investigation has suggested in its report, SOU 2016:49, that the Swedish Competition Authority should be given enhanced powers to, in the first instance, take decisions in matters concerning also competition infringements. Financial penalties for competition infringements are suggested to be paid when the Authority's decision is final. The processing of appeals of Authority decisions should be conducted in accordance with the rules of the Court Matters Act,9 in compliance with the procedure provided for by the Patent and Market Court Act.10 The investigation report considered that there is a need to enhance the powers of the Swedish Competition Authority as well as to increase efficiency in both the infringement proceedings and also for the leniency programme. Nevertheless, the legislator has to date only given the SCA decision-making powers for merger control matters.
It can also be noted that the SCA has recently had limited success in court proceedings. It has lost all its high-profile cases over the past few years, whereas some matters have been closed following commitments from the investigated undertakings. This has led to a discussion in the legal community about the efficiency of the competition law culture in Sweden.
1 Elsa Arbrandt and Fredrik Lindblom are partners at Advokatfirman Cederquist KB.
2 Competition Damages Act 2016:964.
3 EU Damages Directive 2014/104/EU.
4 Competition Act 2008:579.
5 Class Action Act 2002:599.
6 Arbitration Act 1999:116.
7 Code of Judicial Procedure 1942:740.
8 Public Access to Information and Secrecy Act 2009:400.
9 Court Matters Act 1996:242.
10 Patent and Market Court Act 2016:188.