The European Commission is presently consulting on potential steps that could be taken to reduce the risk of claimants losing out on the ability to claim damages in respect of cross-border accidents, on account of divergent rules on limitation periods across the EU. 

As a general rule of thumb, in personal injury cases, it is the law of the country in which the accident that takes place that is usually applied (unless both the claimant and defender are habitually resident in another country or if it can be demonstrated that there are closer links with another country).

There are a number of different limitation systems in operation within the EU. To give a flavour of this: if you have suffered a personal injury in Spain you have one year to raise court proceedings; in the UK, Austria, Germany, Finland and Sweden you have three years, in Bulgaria and Luxembourg you have five years and in France there is a lengthy ten year limitation period.  

The ‘trigger event’ that marks the start of the limitation period also differs from State to State.  Some States (such as Belgium and Malta) favour the ‘date of knowledge’ approach whilst others, like the UK and Hungary, adopt the ‘date of accident’ start date. In addition, there are a number of divergent systems in place across the EU to deal with persons under sixteen.

This can potentially give rise to situations whereby claimants find themselves unable to seek compensation due to expiry of the unfamiliar time limits within another member State.

The European Commission has requested specific examples of such cases and how the outcome may have been different if the accident had taken place elsewhere within the EU.  The consultation paper sets out a number of different options that could be employed to ensure there are“appropriate and proportionate measures” in place to avoid this.

Some less severe options include placing an obligation on insurance companies or the EU website to highlight the relevant limitation period to those travelling abroad.  The most extensive proposal goes even further and relates to the potential harmonisation of limitation periods across the EU to ensure greater consistency.  Watch this space…