Classification societies are commercial — OK?

There is an easy side, and also a more wide-ranging and difficult one, to the CJEU’s decision last week in RINA SpA, Case 614/18, ECLI:EU:C:2020:349 on a point concerning the Brussels I Regulation.

Something over 14 years ago, a Red Sea ro-ro ferry, the Al Salam Boccaccio 98, sank with horrendous loss of life on a voyage between Duba in Saudi Arabia and Safaga in Egypt. She was registered in Panama and classed with Italian classification society RINA SpA.

A number of passengers sued RINA in its home state, Italy, for negligently certifying the vessel fit to sail, relying on what is now Art.4 of Brussels I Recast (the case actually concerned the previous 2001 jurisdiction regulation). RINA however had a trick up its sleeve. It pleaded sovereign immunity, on the basis that although it had been chosen and paid by the owners of the vessel, it had been acting on behalf of the Panamanian government. For that reason it argued that the Italian court had no jurisdiction over it in this respect, and that the Brussels Regulation was beside the point since this was not a civil or commercial matter. The Tribunale di Genova, faced with interesting issues of EU and public international law, understandably made a reference to the CJEU on the matter; was the claim covered by the Regulation?

The court, following the Advocate-General, had no doubt that RINA’s plea was misconceived. Even if the society had been acting for the Panamanian authorities in certifying the vessel so that those authorities in turn could, as the organs of the state of registration, give her the necessary clean bill of health, this was a matter governed by private law principles. According to the generally accepted rules of public international law, there was no way this could be construed as an act iure imperii; it was therefore covered by the Regulation.

It follows that in so far as it is sought to make a classification society liable for damage, loss or injury (a matter on which European and other legal systems differ considerably, and which we have no intention of going into here), lawyers can at least sleep easy on this point: as regards jurisdiction, it is simply a matter of looking up the relevant provisions of Brussels I Recast. It is a fair inference that the same also goes for other certification bodies (something likely to be relevant for international product liability cases) and probably state licensing bodies such as the CAA in so far as they are sued under private law provisions.

So much for the easy bit. Now for the harder one. Does this mean that state immunity law has now been quietly Europeanised as a matter of principle? This issue is not dealt with as such, and was explicitly left open by the Advocate-General in Para [106] of his opinion. The original Jurisdiction Regulation said nothing about it either; and although the Recast version adds a further few words to Art.1.1 saying explicitly that it does not apply to acts done iure imperii, this takes us little further.

The answer seems to be that we do have de facto Europeanisation, but only partly. RINA, read closely, says merely that in so far as Brussels I applies to an EU-based defendant, it is not open to a member state to apply a more generous home-grown version of state immunity and decline jurisdiction. It does not state the converse; namely, that if EU law regards a matter as covered by state immunity then an EU domestic court must not take jurisdiction at all. Why the case ended up in the CJEU in the first place is apparent only from a careful look at the facts: Italy indeed does as a matter of domestic law apply a very generous doctrine of state immunity, and it was this that the claimant sought, successfully, to sideline.

So for the moment – and, assuming Lugano or something similar to Brussels I applies after the transition period – English lawyers can breathe easy on this point too. There’s life yet in their well-thumbed copies of the State Immunity Act 1978.

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