In a judgment of 9 November 2020, the Greek Supreme Court discussed a highly interesting issue, which is not often dealt with in practice. The question is whether foreign law (English law, in the circumstances) may apply to procedural acts due to take place in the forum (Greece), affecting directly the limitation of the action. Specifically, the issue had arisen of the consequences of the waiver of the lawsuit by the claimant/appellant, and the repercussions of its examination pursuant to either Greek or English law.
Facts and Judgment
An insurance company, seated in the UK, provided insurance in connection with the contract for the sale of fuel concluded among the insured one and a ship carrier having seat in Greece. Due to an accident at sea, the insurance company reimbursed the insured one and, by endorsement, was handed over the bills of lading, which included a choice of English law. The insurance company, then, initiated proceedings against the carrier (which was also at the same time the shipowner) in Greece. Service of process took place on 7 July 2008, but on 16 February 2010 the claimant proceeded to the discontinuance of the action pursuant to Article 294 Greek Code of Civil Procedure. Ten days later, the insurance company filed a new action against the defendant, adding this time as defendant another company – notably the new shipowner – to which the ship was in the meantime sold and which incorporated the first one in its capacity of shipowner, succeeding in the related rights and obligations.
In the ensuing hearing before the Piraeus Court of first instance, both defendants
pleaded that the action was time-barred, relying upon Article III(6) of the Hague-Visby Rules, which reads as follows:
Subject to paragraph 6bis the carrier and the ship shall in any event be discharged from all liability whatsoever in respect of the goods, unless suit is brought within one year of their delivery or of the date when they should have been delivered. This period, may however, be extended if the parties so agree after the cause of action has arisen.
The claimant countered that the first claim was filed within one year of the supposed delivery (which failed because of the accident). The discontinuance was made with the intention to correct some parts of the claim. The claimant supported that Greek law should apply. This would lead to the application of Article 263(2) Greek Civil Code, which allows the claimant to file a new claim within six months following the waiver of action. Should this happen, the interruption of limitation goes back to the filing of the initial action. Hence, in accordance with Greek law, this procedural act may not be interpreted as a complete and solemn waiver of the action.
On the contrary, the defendant, the first one, insisted, through all stages of the proceedings, that the choice agreed in favor of English law encompasses the interruption of limitation issue too (the outcome of the case with respect to the second defendant is not related to the matter discussed here).
The Supreme Court ruled in favor of the defendant/appellee. It underlined that the Hague-Visby Rules stipulate the one-year limitation; however, they do not address other issues connected to it, such as interruption and suspension. Consequently, the above matters should be examined by the proper law of the contract, i.e., English law, as evidenced in the bills of lading. Therefore, Greek law, and most importantly, Article 263 Greek Civil Code, may not be applied in the case at hand.
Following the above, the Supreme Court referred extensively to pertinent provisions of the Civil Procedure Rules (CPR) i.e. Parts 17.4 (Amendments to statements of case after the end of a relevant limitation period), 19.5 (Special provisions about adding or substituting parties after the end of a relevant limitation period), 38.2 (Right to discontinue claim), and 38.7 (Discontinuance and subsequent proceedings). It concluded that, pursuant to English law, the discontinuance of the claim can bring all or part of the proceedings instigated to an end by serving a formal notice of discontinuance. In other words, there is no such thing as a revival of the proceedings by means of a new claim filed within a specific period of time, similar to what is provided for by Article 263 Greek Civil Code.
The judgment was mostly based on the legal information related to the CPR, delivered by the Hellenic Institute of Comparative Law, which was requested to be furnished before the first instance court. In addition, the judgment gave very convincing answers to the appellant’s assertions, unknowingly following the same path taken by courts in other jurisdictions (see below, the second next paragraph).
It is necessary to underline the legal framework surrounding the case. The Supreme Court correctly applied Article 3(1) of the 1980 Rome Convention on the law applicable to contractual obligations. However, no further reference to other provisions of the convention is to be found in the text. Articles 1(2)h and 10(1)d were also pertinent to the case.
Article 1(2)h: The rules of this Convention “shall not apply to: […] (h) evidence and procedure, without prejudice to Article 14”.
Article 10(1): “The law applicable to a contract by virtue of Articles 3 to 6 and 12 of this Convention shall govern in particular: […] (d) the various ways of extinguishing obligations, and prescription and limitation of actions.”
Additionally, reference could be made to Article 21 (Relationship with other conventions), where it is clearly stated that the Rome Convention “shall not prejudice the application of international conventions to which a Contracting State is, or becomes, a party”, for sufficiently justifying the application of Article 3 Hague-Visby Rules.
In light of the above, the answer to the question depends on the interpretation given under the aforementioned provisions of the Rome Convention. Put differently, the crucial issues are, whether the interruption of limitation is covered by the wording of Article 10(1)d, and whether the discontinuance and the subsequent filing of the claim should be considered as procedural matters, therefore not covered by the Rome Convention pursuant to Article 1(2)h.
The situation is similar under the Rome I Regulation on the law applicable to contractual obligations, see Articles 12(1)d and 1(3). So far, no preliminary reference has been submitted concerning the questions above. The general trend is to include all aspects of limitation within the scope of the Regulation (interruption, suspension, commencement), even if they are carried out by procedural means. The procedural nature attributed to limitation by virtue of domestic law (here: UK) does not affect the proper application of the Rome I Regulation. In any case, procedural rules related to limitation must be considered as part of the applicable law of the contract (in German: Vertragsstatut).
The Issue in the Prism of the Rome II Regulation
The Rome II Regulation on the law applicable to non-contractual obligations contains similar provisions, namely Articles 1(3) and 15(h). However, there are visible differences in the wording of the latter provision. Article 15(h) is more precise. It stipulates that the law specified under the Regulation provides, among other things, the rules relating to the commencement, interruption and suspension of a period of prescription or limitation.
Two judgments issued by English courts shed light to the issue: Pandya v Intersalonika General Insurance Co SA,  EWHC 273 (QB) (the text is not yet accessible on open sources), and Johnson v Berentzen & Anor  EWHC 1042 (QB) (26 April 2021).These cases relate to car accidents with cross-border element.
In the first case, a UK citizen was injured by a Greek national on the island of Kos. The claim against the Greek insurance company was filed in England. The action was registered with the court; however, service was not effectuated within 5 years following the accident, which renders the action time-barred pursuant to Greek law. The claimant considered that the application of Greek law for the service of process by an English court is absurd. The court had a different view: it ruled that the procedural nature of service forms here part of the interruption of limitation issue. The resemblance to the ruling of the Greek Supreme Court is evident. A right to appeal was refused.
In the second case, the accident occurred on Scottish soil. The perpetrator was domiciled in Germany, whereas the victim in England. The issue revolved again around belated service of the claim. The attempt of the claimant to deconstruct the judgment of the court in the Pandya v Intersalonika case remained unsuccessful. Nevertheless, the court granted the request of the claimant to proceed out of time, by providing an extension in accordance with Scottish law.