The last decade or so has seen a marked increase in antitrust damages actions brought before the national courts of the EU Member States. As things currently stand, such actions are governed by the various national laws of the 28 Member States. This patchwork of differing national rules further complicates the already complex underpinning of antitrust damages actions. In order to facilitate the initiation of such actions, the European institutions have recently agreed upon a new directive that provides for a minimum degree of harmonisation of certain rules governing actions for damages under national laws (the Damages Directive). Its promulgation is now just a formality.
One of the key, yet often overlooked, legal considerations in antitrust damages actions is the issue of limitation periods. For a defendant, a careful assessment of this issue is core to any cartel defence strategy and must be considered at the time of administrative proceedings, as it can have huge implications on the decision of whether or not an appeal should be considered (see the Morgan Crucible proceedings before the English courts, discussed below).
For a claimant, it is equally crucial in order to ensure that a claim is not time-barred and, as a result, left with no legal remedy. An action brought out of time will fail, no matter how robust the claim is perceived to be. A complication arises in this context, however, given the often cross-border nature of antitrust infringements, which means a claim may be brought in a number of Member States, each of which have different rules in place with respect to the length and calculation of limitation periods.
Calculating a given limitation period will often be a relatively straightforward exercise but complexities do sometimes arise. This is illustrated by the Morgan Crucible cases in the United Kingdom, which only recently resolved key questions relating to the calculation of limitation periods for the purposes of bringing an action before the English courts.
Against this backdrop, this special report looks at the limitation periods in those EU Member States that are arguably at the forefront of developments in antitrust damages actions: France, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands and the United Kingdom. In particular, this report analyses the complexities relating to limitation periods, as illustrated by the UK courts’ attempts to grapple with the matter in a complex line of cases, ending up before the UK Supreme Court. This special report also highlights potential problem areas with respect to the limitation periods that are not addressed by the Damages Directive and may adversely affect the interplay between the public and private enforcement system in the European Union.