EU commission can seek own damages from cartel cases
By Benjamin Fox
The European Commission has the right to claim damages resulting from its own ruling on a lift and escalator cartel, according to a legal opinion issued on Tuesday (26 June).
The case, which marks the first time that the EU itself has sought damages, could pave the way for the Union to directly claim compensation from companies as a customer.
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However, it raises questions about a potential conflict of interest for the commission, which is itself responsible for ruling on anti-trust cases.
In February 2007, the commission imposed fines totalling €992 million on Otis, Kone, Schindler and Thyssenkrupp after judging that they had formed a cartel on lifts and escalators sold in Belgium, Germany, Luxembourg and the Netherlands.
All four companies have since appealed to the Court of Justice in a bid to get the fines annulled.
The EU executive then brought a parallel case before the Brussels Commercial Court in June 2008, seeking damages of over €7 million against the four firms on the grounds that the EU had itself been short-changed by the cartel's price-fixing.
The case was passed on to the court for a legal opinion.
In a legal opinion, the Luxembourg-based court's advocate general Pedro Cruz-Villalon said that the commission is entitled to seek compensation against four companies responsible for installing the lifts and escalators in EU buildings in Brussels and Luxembourg. The commission claimed that it had overpaid as a result of price-fixing by the cartel.
Opinions by the advocate general are not binding on the court but are followed in most cases.
Cruz-Villallon commented that there was nothing in law to "preclude the Commission from bringing, on behalf of the EU, a claim for damages before the national courts, even though it was the commission itself which previously conducted an infringement procedure"
It added that is was for "national courts to declare and quantify the damage suffered by the EU as the result of anti-competitive conduct."
Meanwhile, EU competition boss Joaquin Almunia recently revealed that the commission had levied €614 million in fines from anti-trust cases in 2011, far below the €2.9 billion imposed the previous year.
But the commissioner said that the figure was set to "pick up again this year and in the more distant future."