17 December 2013 – The Paris Tribunal de grande instance (TGI) has handed down an important decision in the METP case, ruling that the action brought by the local authority Région Ile-de-France is time-barred. The local authority initially succeeded in obtaining criminal convictions against certain natural persons and sanctions by the Competition Council and subsequently attempted to obtain damages in an interim procedure for the alleged harm suffered. It then brought an action on the merits before the Paris TGI, ultimately claiming over EUR 232 million in damages against 25 natural persons and companies. The interim application was dismissed and the Région’s action has now been declared time-barred by the trial court.
The limitation period was deemed to have expired for both the natural and legal persons sued in the case before the TGI.
For the natural persons involved, the court held that by claiming damages in the civil court for its material injury after an application for compensation in the criminal court, the Ile de France Region had abandoned its claims before the criminal court. Consequently, neither the bringing of a civil suit nor the filing of pleadings before the civil court in 2005 interrupted the running of the limitation period. The decisions rendered by the criminal court (Tribunal correctionnel), the Paris Court of Appeal and the interim relief judge did not interrupt the limitation period either.
For legal persons, the limitation period was deemed to have passed both for the legal persons considered liable for their employees and for those where no liability fell to their employees.
The court found that in the case of legal persons having been subject to sanctions by the Competition Council (now the Competition Authority), the referral to that administrative authority did not interrupt the limitation period in respect of the damages action.
Further, for those legal entities whose employees had been prosecuted in the criminal proceedings, the court held that acts interrupting the limitation period for personal liability in the criminal court can have no effect on the civil action in the civil court against legal persons as principals with joint and several liability and not merely joint liability which can interrupt the limitation period for all the defendants.
This judgment is also important with regard to Article 700 of the Code of Civil Procedure (legal costs). The court ordered Ile de France Region to pay costs for all the defendants, amounting to a sum of EUR 290 000.
The local authority has a period of one month from the notification of the judgment to the parties to lodge an appeal to the Paris Court of Appeal.
This decision is yet another reminder of the precautions required for civil damages actions in competition cases and particularly the importance of bringing such actions in due time, given that a procedure before the Competition Authority will not interrupt the limitation period for damages claims under the law as it currently stands.