After the collision off the French coast of the EL DELFIN and the ULTREIA, two sailboats flying the Luxembourg flag and the French flag, the ULTREIA interests commenced proceedings before the Civil Court of Dunkirk. The defendants (the EL DELFIN interests) challenged the jurisdiction of the Dunkirk Court arguing that the correct jurisdiction was Luxembourg. They did so by reference to Article 1(a) of the 1952 Brussels Collision Convention (the 1952 Convention), which provides that proceedings involving the collision of two (or more) vessels can only be brought in the courts of the place where the defendant has his habitual residence. The Dunkirk Court rejected the challenge to jurisdiction on the basis that the vessels collided in French territorial waters.
The defendants appealed to the Court of Appeal of Douai which overturned the first ruling in a decision dated 6 December 2013, which found that the correct jurisdiction was Luxembourg. The ULTREIAunderwriters then lodged an appeal before the French civil Supreme Court, the “Cour de cassation” which in its 16 September 2014 decision (ref. 13- 13.880) upheld the Court of Appeal judgment.
The Cour de cassation ruled first that the 1952 Convention was the key authority, focussing on Article 8. The Court decided that whilst the collision had occurred in French territorial waters, it had not taken place in “inland waters” under Article 1(c), which the Court decided was a more limited area, reflecting the definition set out in UNCLOS III Article 8: “waters on the landward side of the baseline of the territorial sea form part of the internal waters of the State”.
Second, the Court referred to Article 71§1 of the 2001 Council Regulation (No 44/2001 of 22 December 2000) concerning jurisdiction and the recognition and enforcement of judgments. This provides that where a specific convention exists it must prevail over European regulations. As a result of its interpretation of the relationship between the 1952 Convention and the Council Regulation, the Cour de cassation found that the 1952 Convention prevails over any other regulations or rules (whether EU rules or French domestic provisions).
Consequently, the jurisdiction of the French courts was to be assessed against the criteria set forth under Article 1 of the 1952 Convention, which essentially provides that proceedings involving the collision of two (or more) vessels can only be brought before the Court of the place: (a) where the defendant has his habitual residence or place of business; or (b) where the defendant ship or another ship belonging to the defendant has been arrested, or security provided in response to a threatened arrest; or (c) of collision when the collision has occurred within the limits of a port or inland waters.
The ULTREIA interests advanced a further argument before the Cour de cassation that Article 3§3 of the 1952 Convention specifically empowered the Dunkirk Court to retain its jurisdiction where proceedings had already been brought before it. Article 3§3 provides: “In the case of a collision or collisions in which two.... vessels are involved nothing in this Convention shall prevent any Court seized of an action by reason of the provisions of this Convention, from exercising jurisdiction under its national laws in further actions arising out of the same incident”.
The Cour de cassation also rejected this argument, agreeing with the Court of Appeal that it was neither the intended purpose nor the effect of this provision to authorize a court to retain its jurisdiction, where, as here, none of the criteria in Article 1 of the 1952 Convention applied.
The Court decided that “inland waters” in Article 1(c) should be defined as per the definition set out in UNCLOS III Article 8: “waters on the landward side of the baseline of the territorial sea form part of the internal waters of the State”. Such a definition is more limited than “territorial waters”.
This landmark judgment confirms that whilst French courts ordinarily have jurisdiction regarding territorial waters, the 1952 Convention provides that the location of the incident is only capable of constituting a ground conferring jurisdiction in collision cases where the incident has occurred within inland waters as defined by UNCLOS III. It is also a clear illustration that international conventions take precedence over French domestic civil procedure rules.