France: French Class Actions: How Potentially Dangerous Will They Be?

I.
Since the entry into force of the new Law on Consumer Protection 17 March 2014 – also known as “Hamon Law” – France now has its own version of a class action, different by many ways from its American counterpart.

To prevent any of what are considered as abuses on the Eastern side of the Atlantic, the French legislator has framed this legal action in several limits, which in turn seems to call in question the effectiveness of the mechanism.

II.
Pursuant to article L. 423-1 of French Consumer Code, officially recognised national consumer protection associations are now allowed to seek damages before civil courts, in order to obtain compensation for the individual and material losses suffered by consumers placed in a similar or identical situation. The harm must have its common cause in a breach by one or several same professionals of their legal or contractual obligations in the context of a sale of goods or provision of services, or when the harm derives from a breach of competition law.

Therefore, the French class action is restricted by four means:

  1. Only individuals can be provided with some compensation through this action since the Hamon Law, for the first time, also defined the consumer as a natural person acting for non-work-related purposes, excluding legal persons from its scope.
  2. Officially recognised associations of national dimension – only 15 to date – are granted an exclusive right to initiate the proceedings, which puts an important limitation to the role of legal counsels in this field, as opposed to the American class action.
  3. These associations can only seek to obtain damages to compensate losses resulting from material or financial damage suffered by the consumers. Such a limitation excludes moral harm or physical injuries, which may be of particularly great importance in many cases (sale of defective or spoiled goods, for instance). Punitive damages are also excluded so far.
  4. As its place in the French Consumer Code clearly indicates, the scope of this mechanism is limited to consumer claims. The legislator’s purpose here was to avoid class actions in sensitive areas, such as public health and environmental damage. However, the legislator has inserted an unusual provision according to which the exclusion of health and environmental damages shall be reconsidered within 30 months after passing the regulation. In fact, discussions have already started with professional health organisations.

III.
The procedure has been broken down in a three-step process:

  • A judgment must find that the conditions for admissibility are fulfilled, rule on the professional’s liability in relation to the individual cases presented by the association, define the concerned group of consumers, and determine which criteria consumers must meet in order to join the group of consumers to whom the professional is liable.
  • The adhesion of consumers to the class action is based on an “opt-in” system: it is subject to a positive expression of the victim’s will. To make the proceeding operational, the judgment must therefore order publicity measures intended for consumers most likely to belong to the group. The decision also states by which means consumers may join the group (by approaching the professional directly or the association), and in which delay (no less than two months and no more than six months after the publicity measures are taken).
  • Regarding the effective compensation of the consumers, the judgment must fix the timeframe within which the damages have to be paid by the professional and, in the event of a dispute over payment, the judge is required to give its decision in the same ruling.

When “the identity and the number of consumers having suffered harm are known” and “when these consumers have suffered the same loss, or loss of an identical value for a given service or over a given period of time or duration," a simplified procedure is provided, through which the judge may rule on the liability and may order the professional to compensate victims directly and individually, within a fixed delay.

Class actions related to anticompetitive practices suffer a last limitation, since a “follow on” rule is applied in those cases: professionals may only be held liable on the basis of a definitive decision made by competent national or EU authorities or jurisdictions.

Innovative, this class action surely is; its numerous safeguards appear, however, as important obstacles to its success to-date.

An extension to health-related litigation is to be monitored closely.

The content of this article is intended to provide a general guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought about your specific circumstances.

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