The author of this post is Simon Laimer, professor at the Linz University.
The claimant, an airline established in Austria, and the defendant, which operates a hotel in India, concluded a written contract for the accommodation of the airline’s crew members in the defendant’s hotel as well as their transfer from the airport to the hotel.
The agreement provided, among other things, that the defendant should indemnify the claimant in respect of any damage to property or injury or death of persons, encompassing the property of the claimant and the crew members, caused by negligent or wilful misconduct of the hotel or its staff.
Furthermore, the agreement included an exclusive jurisdiction clause on behalf of a competent court in Vienna (Austria) and provided that it shall be governed by Austrian law without reference to the choice of law principles thereof. During a transfer from the airport to the hotel commissioned by the defendant a traffic accident occurred and several crew members were injured.
The claimant brought a claim to the Vienna commercial court (Handelsgericht) for payment of damages, including damage claims assigned to it by its crew members. While the Handelsgericht determined its jurisdiction based on the jurisdiction clause, the Court of Appeal rejected the claim in so far as it concerned the crew members’ claims assigned to the claimant for lack of international jurisdiction of the Austrian courts.
By a ruling of 29 June 2020, the Austrian Supreme Court (2 Ob 104/19m) confirmed the international jurisdiction of Austrian courts also with regard to that part of the claim. The Court held that a jurisdiction clause under Article 25 Brussels I bis Regulation cannot be invoked against third parties benefitting from the contract (citing the ruling of the Court of Justice in Refcomp), but they could rely on it if the interpretation of the clause leads to the conclusion that it (also) aims at protecting them, hence only the effect of prorogation but not the effect of derogation applies.
The decision may be correct in its outcome, although it remains questionable whether the Austrian Supreme Court should have referred this case to the Court of Justice for a preliminary ruling.
The CJEU recently ruled (in his – debatable – decision in Ryanair v DelayFix; see also Matthias Lehmann) that the mere assignment of a claim is not sufficient for the assignee to be bound by a choice-of-court clause (unless the assignee is the successor to all the initial contracting party’s rights and obligations under the applicable law; para 47). In the present case, however, the roles of the parties were exactly reversed: the Austrian Supreme Court found that, in accordance with the definition of responsibilities covered by the contract, a place of jurisdiction in favor of the assignors had been agreed between the contracting parties. With regard to the interpretation of the jurisdiction clause, both the law applicable to the contractual relationship and the lex fori led to Austrian law, which is why the Austrian Supreme Court found that it did not have to decide the corresponding dispute in legal literature (cf. Caterina Benini on the subject).
Well, it may be sufficiently clear in Austrian national law and as well in the field of insurance contract law according to art. 15 No. 2 Brussels I bis (see CJEU in Gerling v Amministrazione del tesoro dello Stato) that choice-of-court agreements in favor of third parties are effective (at least with regard to the effect of prorogation), but a CJEU decision going beyond this could have contributed to legal clarity.
A detailed summary of the decision is available in the latest issue (4-2020) of The European Legal Forum.