Kahju hüvitamise direktiivi ülevõtmisega seotud konkurentsiseaduse muudatused on plaanitud kolmandale lugemisele järgmisel kolmapäeval (10. mail). Mida muudatused endaga kaasa toovad, sai pikemalt arutatud 30. märtsil konkurentsi ja ärisaladuse konverentsil. Tegin seal ka ise ettekande Eesti senisest praktikast konkurentsiõiguse rikkumisega seotud kahjunõuete osas ning andsin hinnangu, kuivõrd direktiivi ülevõtmine kahjunõuete esitamist hoogustab.
Lühidalt kokkuvõttes leidsin, et konkurentsiõigusega seotud kahjunõuded pole Eestis midagi väga uut ning selliseid kohtuasju on juba olnud rohkem kui ühe käe sõrmedel üles lugeda. Erinevalt nt Soome või Lääne-Euroopa praktikast, ei ole Eestis kahjunõuded olnud seotud kartellidega (sest suuri kartelliasju, mis kohtus kinnitust oleks leidnud, meil eriti pole olnud), vaid turgu valitseva seisundi kuritarvitustega. Nende juhtumite ühiseks jooneks kipub olema see, et enamasti pole kahju kannatanu saanud väidetava rikkumise lõpetamiseks tuge Konkurentsiametist ning seega on kahjunõue nö viimaseks õlekõrreks.
Kuivõrd kahju hüvitamise direktiivi ülevõtmine ei muuda Eesti konkurentsiõiguse jõustamise süsteemi, siis ei too see minu hinnangul kaasa kuigi olulist kahjunõuete suurenemist. Eduka kahjunõude aluseks saab tüüpiliselt olla siiski selge otsus, millega tuvastatakse konkurentsiõiguse rikkumine. Kuni selliseid otsuseid on vähe, on ka kahju hüvitamise nõuded jätkuvalt keerulised.
Neile, kellel viitsimist pikem lugemine ette võtta lisan siia ka oma ettekande täispika teksti (paraku küll inglise keeles):
Damages claims in Estonia: past and future
Damages claims in Estonian courts
Claiming damages for competition law violations is nothing new in Estonia. There have been such cases in Estonian courts already since 2005. However, unlike what Ben told us about cartel damages claims, Estonian damages cases have not been related to cartel damages, but to damages allegedly caused by dominant companies.
Most probably the main reason for the lack of cartel damages claims in Estonia is that there really have not been many big cartel cases that would have stood up the courts’ scrutiny. Many cartel cases have been ended before reaching to court ruling or have been dismissed because of procedural violations. A number of cases have been ended with a settlement between the violators and the prosecutor’s office (e.g. tyre association’s boycott against certain tyre retailers, street cleaning service providers’ market sharing and bid rigging cartel, security service providers’ market sharing cartel). Even though such settled cases could have in principle given grounds for damages claims, these cases were not followed by such claims.
Hence, as said before the damages claims in Estonian courts have been related to dominant companies’ activities, for instance:
- railway infrastructure usage fees;
- cable conduit rent;
- broadcast service fees;
- water prices;
- unjustified refusal to supply electricity (before the full liberalisation);
- pricing of oil shale;
- and besides pure damages cases, there has also been a case where the claimant sought to invalidate the pricing and discounts conditions of the incumbent postal company.
It is common in all these cases that the claimants had first challenged the allegedly dominant firm’s prices at the Estonian Competition Authority, but didn’t achieve their desired outcome there. The authority did not find an infringement or ended the proceedings having found that the competitive situation had improved. As the authority’s decision as such is not binding for civil courts, it has been forth a try for claimants to claim damages in the civil court to get closer achieving their aims.
Let’s have see now some matters in which VARUL’s office has been involved in….
Railway infrastructure usage fees cases
These were the first competition damages cases where VARUL’s office was involved in and to our knowledge probably the first competition damages cases in Estonia altogether.
At the time of the facts of the matter the incumbent railway operator Eesti Raudtee (Estonian Railway) provided both infrastructure and cargo services within the same legal entity. A competing cargo operator Spacecom needed access to railway infrastructure of Estonian Railway, but found the infrastructure usage fees to be excessive. Estonian Railways claimed that its costs related to infrastructure were very high and therefore that usage fees charged from Spacecom were justified.
To contest that Spacecom argued that if such high infrastructure fees were indeed justified, then the cargo service prices that Estonian Railway charged from its own customers must be too low (so called predatory prices), because these could not possibly cover both the high infrastructure costs and additional costs related to providing cargo services. For the competition law nerds like me, the issue is basically similar to the margin squeeze problem of Deutsche Bahn case.
At the time of the case, the railway specific regulation was not clear about the cost components of railway infrastructure fees. So, among all other arguments of the case, the general competition law logic had to be applied. The claimant included economic experts to prove that the infrastructure fees were indeed excessive. However, both the first and second instance courts were reluctant to look in detail into the economics and rejected the claims. Unfortunately, the Supreme Court did not grant leave for cassation in this matter, though we really think it would have been very important that the Supreme Court had given instructions as to how to deal with competition damages cases already at that time.
The first case was followed by several other similar cases, but in all those cases the courts were still reluctant to scrutinize the pricing in detail.
In our opinion these cases were somewhat ahead of their time. Although we are not fully objective, we believe that the claims for damages were justified, but the courts at that time were just not yet ready to dig into the economics of the cases.
Cable conduit cases
Another interesting stream of cases in which VARUL’s office has been involved cable conduit rent charged from competing telecom service providers by the incumbent telecom company Elion (now Telia), which owned cable conduits.
Cable conduits are basically tubes in the ground and each telecom operator sought to direct its own cables through the conduits, instead of digging up the ground to put their own conduits there. Hence, the conduits constituted an essential facility for competitors.
At the time of facts of the case, the cable conduit rent was approved by the Communications Authority. The companies that needed access to the cable conduits found that the rent was nevertheless excessive. The Competition Authority had not taken a decision in this matter, but had expressed opinion in its letters that the rent could indeed be excessive. Elion’s competitors Elisa and Starman claimed damages in the civil court for the excessive rent they had had to pay to Elion.
As a first step, the court of first instance issued an interim ruling finding that competition rules did not apply as the rent was subject to sector specific regulation. However, the Supreme Court made a very favourable ruling to towards the claimant finding that a dominant company must obey competition law even if sector specific rules are more lenient.
Hence, the case went back to the first instance, where the dispute continued about whether the rent was indeed excessive. It was disputed which methodology to apply for calculating the capital costs of Elion. And of course, the big question was how to prove costs, as the only one having access to such evidence was Elion itself.
These questions remained unsolved as the cases were settled between the parties.
So much about past cases. Let me now look into the future…
What will the implementation of damages directive change?
First of all – what will it not change …
It will not change the competition law enforcement rules in general. I don’t think that it would bring about more cartel convictions. It is also unlikely to change Competition Authority’s enforcement actions regarding abuse of dominance. Therefore, it will not bring about radical changes.
In my opinion the most significant changes for the Estonian legal order are the following:
Binding effect of the Competition Authority’s decision
The law will make clear that the Competition Authority’s or the courts’ decisions in which a fine is imposed and the decision by which the Authority makes a prescription to cease the competition law violation will be binding. Hence these can be used as evidence for claiming damages.
However, as said before, such decisions are quite rare in practice (or at least have been rare thus far). Therefore, the civil court route will likely continue to be often the only alternative for the claimants in case of alleged abuse of dominance. Yet the collection of evidence will not be significantly facilitated for them and the civil courts’ competence in handling such cases remains uncertain. So, submitting civil claims will not be much easier in the future.
Lost profits can be claimed
Until so far it has been always debatable whether lost profits could be claimed in case of competition law related damages claims, in particular, where the claim has been based on tort law. The law will make it clear that it must be possible claim lost profit in all cases of competition law infringements.
More stringent rules on calculating delay interest
As a rule delay interest is calculated from the moment of submitting the claim. However, according to the planned legal amendments, the delay interest in case of competition law infringements will be calculated from the moment the damage occurred.
Longer limitation period
The limitation period for damages claims will be extended from current three years to five years.
Civil claims cannot be resolved in criminal matter concerning a cartel
Due to the need to protect the leniency file, the law will make clear that civil claims related to cartel must be separated from the criminal case and handled only by civil court.
In conclusion, I don’t see any substantive changes ahead due to the damages directive, as it does not address the main competition enforcement problems that we are facing in Estonia.