General introduction to the legislative framework for private antitrust enforcement
The Austrian Cartel and Competition Law Amendment Act 2017 (KaWeRÄG 2017) implementing the EU Damages Directive (Directive) became effective on 1 May 2017. As the deadline for the implementation of the Directive expired on 26 December 2016, the provisions on the compensation of harm caused by infringements of antitrust law (Sections 37a to 37m Austrian Cartel Act (KartG) entered into force retroactively as of 27 December 2016 (apart from the provision in Section 37m concerning the imposition of fines).
The new substantive provisions apply to harm incurred after 26 December 2016; for all damages arising before this date, the old regime has to be applied.
The KaWeRÄG 2017 amends the KartG, the Austrian Competition Act and the Austrian Act on Improvement of Local Supplies and Conditions of Competition. The provisions in Sections 37a et seqq KartG introduced new rules for actions for private antitrust damages claims (PADCs). The ordinary civil courts are the competent courts for PADCs.
The rules prescribe a fault-based liability: thus, a claim for damages for antitrust infringements requires that an unlawful and culpable antitrust infringement caused the harm. Section 37i (2) KartG stipulates that decisions of the cartel court, the European Commission or the national competition authorities (NCAs) of other EU Member States establishing an infringement have a binding effect for the Austrian civil courts as regards illegality and culpability. Therefore, in a follow-on scenario, claimants only have to establish the damage incurred and a causal link between the infringement and such damage. However, in the case of a cartel (between competitors), a presumption of harm applies. This presumption is rebuttable, with the burden of proof resting with the infringer. As proving the occurrence of antitrust damages has been rather difficult for claimants in the past, the newly introduced presumption of harm should facilitate the enforcement of claims by parties who have suffered harm from a cartel. However, even with the new presumption, the quantum of damages still has to be established by the party claiming damages.
Section 37h KartG stipulates new rules on the limitation period for PADCs. PADCs are now time-barred five years after the injured party becomes aware of the damage and the identity of the infringer (the absolute period of limitation is 10 years after the occurrence of harm). The statute of limitation for PADC proceedings is suspended during pending proceedings before the cartel court, the European Commission or the NCAs of other EU Member States; investigations by the European Commission or NCAs into possible infringements of antitrust law; and settlement negotiations. In the case of proceedings before the cartel court, or proceedings or investigations by the European Commission or NCAs, the suspension of the statute of limitations ends one year after the decision on the proceedings has become legally binding or after the end of the investigation. Section 37g (4) KartG allows courts to suspend the proceedings for a maximum period of two years when it is likely that the parties will agree on a settlement. In the case of unsuccessful settlement negotiations, a claim has to be filed within a reasonable period of time (Section 37h (2) final sentence).