On 16 June 2016, the Court of Justice ("the Court") dismissed two appeals brought by Evonik Degussa GmbH ("Degussa") and SKW Stahl-Metallurgie Holding AG ("SKW Holding") concerning the Commission decision relating to the calcium carbide cartel. The Court’s judgments deal with the concept of the liability of a parent company holding all or almost all capital in a subsidiary. The judgments confirm that there is a high threshold to rebut the presumption that a parent company has actually exercised decisive influence over its subsidiary.
In 2009, the Commission adopted a decision relating to a price-fixing cartel on the calcium carbonate and magnesium market between 2004 and 2007. In particular, the Commission found that SKW Stahl-Metallurgie GmbH ("SKW") had participated directly in the cartel. Due to the fact that SKW was a subsidiary of Degussa between April 2004 and August 2004, and of SKW Holding between September 2004 and January 2007, the Commission also held these subsequent parent companies liable for SKW’s participation. After the General Court (“GC”) dismissed most of their grounds of appeal against the decision in 2014, both Degussa and SKW Holding appealed to the Court [see our February 2014 newsletter].
Degussa had explicitly instructed SKW not to participate in any competition law infringement. The GC, rather counter-intuitively, found that the fact that SKW participated in the infringement in contravention of Degussa's instructions was a strong indication of the actual exercise of decisive influence by Degussa over SKW. Degussa objected to this reasoning. The Court of Justice sided with Degussa, stating that although an express instruction can be a strong indication of the actual exercise of decisive influence by a parent over a subsidiary, the fact that a subsidiary does not comply with that explicit instruction cannot be regarded as such an indication. Despite this, the Court held that Degussa had failed to prove that it was SKW's normal practice not to carry out instructions from its parent company. Therefore, the Court concluded that the GC had not erred in law in finding that Degussa had failed to rebut the presumption that it exercised decisive influence over SKW.
SKW Holding argued in its appeal that its right to be heard was infringed because the Hearing Officer refused a request for a closed hearing during the administrative proceedings before the Commission. SKW Holding had wished to put forward arguments concerning the role of Degussa in the period following the sale of SKW to SKW Holding, without Degussa being present during such hearing. The Hearing Officer had refused, arguing that SKW Holding's right of defence did not take priority over that of Degussa.
The Court held that the Hearing Officer should not have refused SKW Holding's request. As Degussa was never accused of having participated in the cartel in respect of the period following the sale of SKW to SKW Holding, it was a third party to the proceedings in respect of that period. Accordingly, Degussa's right of defence would not have been harmed. Notwithstanding this error, the Court held that SKW Holding had failed to show that the outcome of the proceedings would have been different had the closed hearing been granted.