International Commercial Law Blog

Mere use of a website by the trader does not in itself trigger application of the rules of jurisdiction for the protection of consumers in other Member States

The European Court of Justice in its Judgment in Joined Cases C-585/08 and C-144/09 Peter Pammer v Reederei Karl Schlüter GmbH & Co. KG and Hotel Alpenhof GesmbH v Oliver Heller explains the rules of jurisdiction in European Union law that are applicable to consumer contracts, in relation to services offered on the internet.

The European Union regulation on jurisdiction in civil and commercial matters (see Council Regulation (EC) No 44/2001 of 22 December 2000 on jurisdiction and the recognition and enforcement of judgments in civil and commercial matters) provides that actions against a person domiciled in a Member State must, as a general rule, be brought in the courts of that State. It also provides that cases resulting from a contractual relationship may be decided by the courts for the place of performance of the contractual obligation. In the case of consumer contracts, however, rules protecting the consumer apply. If the trader “directs its activities” to the Member State in which the consumer is domiciled, the consumer can bring proceedings before the courts of the Member State of his domicile and he can be sued only in that Member State.

In its judgment, the Court states that mere use of a website by a trader in order to engage in trade does not in itself mean that its activity is “directed to” other Member States, which would trigger application of the protective rules of jurisdiction in the regulation. The Court holds that, in order for those rules to be applicable in relation to consumers from other Member States, the trader must have manifested its intention to establish commercial relations with such consumers.

In order to determine whether a trader whose activity is presented on its website or on that of an intermediary can be considered to be “directing” its activity to the Member State of the consumer’s domicile, within the meaning of Article 15(1)(c) of Regulation No 44/2001, it should be ascertained whether, before the conclusion of any contract with the consumer, it is apparent from those websites and the trader’s overall activity that the trader was envisaging doing business with consumers domiciled in one or more Member States, including the Member State of that consumer’s domicile, in the sense that it was minded to conclude a contract with them.

In this context, the Court considers what evidence can demonstrate that the trader was envisaging doing business with consumers domiciled in other Member States. Such evidence includes clear expressions of the trader’s intention to solicit the custom of those consumers, for example when it offers its services or its goods in several Member States designated by name or when it pays a search engine operator for an internet referencing service in order to facilitate access to its site by consumers domiciled in those various Member States.

Nevertheless, other less patent items of evidence, possibly in combination with one another, are also capable of demonstrating the existence of an activity “directed to” the Member State of the consumer’s domicile. These include: the international nature of the activity at issue, such as certain tourist activities; mention of telephone numbers with the international code; use of a top-level domain name other than that of the Member State in which the trader is established, for example “.de”, or use of neutral top-level domain names such as “.com” or “.eu”; the description of itineraries from one or more other Member States to the place where the service is provided; and mention of an international clientele composed of customers domiciled in various Member States, in particular by presentation of accounts written by such customers. Likewise, if the website permits consumers to use a language or a currency other than that generally used in the trader’s Member State, this can also constitute evidence demonstrating cross-border activity of the trader.

On the other hand, the mere accessibility of the trader’s website in the Member State in which the consumer is domiciled is insufficient. The same is true of mention of an email address and of other contact details, or of use of a language or a currency which are the language and/or currency generally used in the Member State in which the trader is established.

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