On 29 April 2020, the (national) Court of Appeal of Luxembourg ruled that the conditions of res judicata are determined by uniform European rules and not by national law. In particular, the court held that the triple identity requirement developed in the context of lis pendens equally applies to define the conditions of res judicata.
In 1985, a Luxembourg company installed a storage machine in a warehouse in Weissenau, Germany. In 1988, a fire broke out in the warehouse and destroyed it. Three German insurance companies covered the losses and, after being subrogated in the rights of the insured, sued the Luxembourg company in Munich, Germany, for DEM 3.885.395, DEM 12.054.105 and DEM 67.820 (about € 6 million in total).
The German companies sued on both contractual and tort grounds. Although the issue was debated in the Luxembourg proceedings, it seems that the German court declined jurisdiction with respect to the contractual claim. With respect to the tort claim, the German court found that the claim was admissible but dismissed it. The first instance judgment was rendered in 1994.
While the German insurers were (unsuccessfully) appealing through the German court system up until the German Federal Court (BGH), the Luxembourg defendant initiated proceedings in 1998 in Luxembourg against one of its French subscontractor, seeking a declaration that, should the Luxembourg defendant be found liable of the loss, the French subcontractor should indemnify it. A few months later, the German insurers also initiated proceedings against the Luxembourg defendant in the same Luxembourg court seeking payment of the exact same sums (DEM 3.885.395, DEM 12.054.105 and DEM 67.820). Their claim was primarily for breach of contract, and subsidiarily in tort.
The Luxembourg party argued that the recognition of the German judgment in Luxembourg prevented relitigation of the same dispute in Luxembourg courts. On appeal, it also challenged the jurisdiction of Luxembourg courts to entertain the action on the ground of lis pendens.
The Luxembourg Court of Appeal dismissed the jurisdictional challenge in a first judgment of 8 July 2015. First, it noted that the issue had not been raised before the court of first instance. Secondly, it ruled that the Luxembourg proceedings had been initiated after the German court not only had been seized but had actually delivered its judgment. It held that the lis pendens doctrine did not apply if the second proceedings were initiated after a judgment had been rendered.
The key question was therefore whether the German judgment prevented relitigation in Luxembourg. Remarkably, both parties primarily argued that the conditions and scope of res judicata were governed by the Brussels Convention, and should thus be determined autonomously. However, both parties had also filed with the court expert evidence on the conditions and scope of res judicata under German law.
The court noted that the parties agreed that EU law governs and ruled that the Brussels Convention defines the scope and conditions of res judicata. It therefore declared the expert reports on German law irrelevant.
The court identified and applied two rules of EU law.
The first was deduced from the Gothaer case (C-456/11). It relates to the scope of res judicata. The issue was whether the reasons of the judgment could be taken into consideration to determine the scope of the foreign judgment, or whether the court should only look at the operative part of the judgment (dispositif). The court suggested that the following part of Gothaer was of general application:
the concept of res judicata under European Union law does not attach only to the operative part of the judgment in question, but also attaches to the ratio decidendi of that judgment, which provides the necessary underpinning for the operative part and is inseparable from it.
The second rule identified by the Luxembourg Court of Appeal was the triple identity requirement. The court did not explain which judgment of the CJEU supported this conclusion. I can certainly think of a number of judgments defining the requirements for lis pendens, but I am not sure the CJEU has ever ruled that the same requirements were also applicable in the context of a European concept of res judicata in civil and commercial matters.
The Court then conducted a close analysis of the German judgment, that it compared to the claims made in Luxembourg. It underscored certain important differences between the German and Luxembourg laws of liability which explain why a claim could be made on a tort basis under German law, while it could only be made on a contractual basis in Luxembourg. It eventually concluded that the German judgment was res judicata in Luxembourg and declared the claims of the insurance companies inadmissible.
The most interesting part of the judgment is no doubt the proposition that a European concept of res judicata exists under the Brussels Convention. As far as I am aware, the vast majority of scholars in Europe debate whether res judicata should be governed by the law of the state of origin or the law of the requested state.
Gothaer is certainly authority for the proposition that the res judicata of jurisdictional rulings should be defined at European level, but the court insisted that the rationale was the uniform application of European rules, i.e. jurisdictional rules provided by the Brussels I Regulation. In the present case, the issues debated before the German and Luxembourg courts were governed by national law (German tort law and Luxembourg contract law).
This being said, would it be illogical to resort to the same requirements to define lis pendens and res judicata? Both doctrines aim at avoiding conflicting decisions.
Thanks for this illuminating note Gilles. It’s good to see a national court examining and applying the Gothauer dictum about the res judicata implications of the reasoning of the judgment.