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Bitcoin Trades and Consumer Jurisdiction

On 4 November 2020, the Austrian Supreme Court (OGH) ruled on the applicability of the consumer jurisdiction under Article 18 Brussels I bis Regulation to transactions related to Bitcoin.

Facts

The facts of this case were quite peculiar. An Austrian resident offered investment opportunities on a cross-border basis, which could only be paid for in Bitcoin. After being contacted by a German resident who expressed interest in the investment opportunities, the Austrian offeror sent three agents to the German customer.

The three agents brought with them a so-called Bitcoin ATM to carry out the transaction. Since the Bitcoin ATM did not function, they used the smartphone of the Austrian offeror, which they had also brought “just in case”, to transfer six Bitcoin belonging to the Austrian offeror to an investment account in the name of the German customer. It was agreed that the German customer would reimburse six Bitcoin within a month to the Austrian offeror.

When he failed to do so, he was sued by the Austrian offeror at the latter’s domicile in Austria.

In the proceedings, the German investor contested the jurisdiction of the Austrian courts.

Legal procedure

The Austrian courts at first and second instance dismissed the claim for lack of jurisdiction. They characterised the contract as a contract for the exchange of Bitcoin for the participation in the investment. This led them to apply Article 7(1)(a) Brussels I bis Regulation, with the consequence that (i) the place of performance for each obligation must be determined according to the governing national law and (ii) the governing national law must be identified through the use of the rules of private international law of the forum (see the now classic CJEU judgments in Tessili and De Bloos). The courts took the view that under both Austrian and German law, the place of performance of contracts of exchange is the place of domicile of the debtor of the respective obligation. Since the result was the same under both laws, it did not matter which of the two was applicable to the obligation to return the Bitcoin.

According to the same courts, it was of no relevance in this case if the contract were to be characterized not as a contract for exchange, but as a loan. In the latter case, the place of performance would still be the place of domicile of the debtor under Austrian and German law. This view, however, ignores that loan contracts are governed by the uniform jurisdiction rule of Article 7(1)(b) Brussels I bis Regulation (see CJEU C-249/16, Kareda). The place of performance for a Bitcoin loan would therefore be determined uniformly and in an autonomous way. The CJEU has also previously ruled that the place of performance for long-term contracts is uniformly located at the domicile of the lender (see again Kareda).

The decision by the Austrian Supreme Court

The Supreme Court of Austria cut short the legal debate. It ruled that the German investor acted for a purpose that could not be attributed to her professional or commercial activity, and that she was therefore a consumer in the sense of Article 17 Brussels Ibis Regulation. In the absence of evidence to the contrary, the Austrian offeror was to be assumed to have acted in a professional capacity and therefore as an entrepreneur. The Austrian offeror had also directed his activities to the consumer’s country of residence, as evidenced by the fact that he had marketed the investments in Germany and had recruited numerous investors there. Therefore, the consumer jurisdiction rules of Article 18 Brussels Ibis Regulation applied. As a result, the German investor could only be sued at her place of domicile in Germany (Article 18(2) Brussels Ibis Regulation). The Austrian courts therefore lacked jurisdiction. The action was dismissed.

Assessment

The case raises a number of interesting questions about Bitcoin transactions and jurisdiction. In particular, it illustrates the importance of the question of whether or not Bitcoin can be characterised as money for the purposes of EU Private International Law. If Bitcoin were money, the applicability of the rules on sales or service contracts for performances paid with Bitcoin could be envisaged. If, on the contrary, Bitcoin lacks the legal characteristics of money, any transaction in Bitcoin can only be qualified as a contract falling under Article 7(1)(a) Brussels I bis Regulation, with the result that jurisdiction will depend on the national rules governing the transaction and their characterisation of Bitcoin.

Unfortunately, the Austrian Supreme Court was able to avoid answering the questions on the legal nature of Bitcoin by resorting to the consumer jurisdiction rules. Given the considerable and growing economic importance of Bitcoin, it would be desirable to obtain legal certainty on these questions. But at the least, the ruling underlines the need for protecting Bitcoin investors, including at the level of jurisdiction. It can hardly be doubted that the result reached by the Austrian Supreme Court was appropriate. Investors should not have to sue at a place of domicile of the counterparty simply because an investment can only be paid for in cryptocurrency and not in legal tender.

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