France – Direct action against the insurer and enforceability of arbitration clause

Time to read: 3 min

Are arbitration and jurisdiction clauses contained in insurance contracts enforceable against a third party which is acting directly against the insurer in third party liability insurances?

Such direct action is admitted by French law in liability insurances, as defined in article 124-3 of the Insurance Code.

In just a few months two radically different approaches have been taken by the French Cour de cassation (Civ.1, 19 December 2018, n°17-28.951) and the ECJ in Assens Havn v. Navigator Management UK Ltd (13 July 2017, C-368/16) and KABEG v. MMA IARD (20 July 2017, C-340/16).

The case submitted to the Cour de cassation represented a third party exercising a direct right of action before French Courts against the insurer of a floating barge which had caused him a damage. The Supreme Court accepted that the insurer could validly oppose the arbitration clause, which was in the policy against the third party, and therefore judged that French Court had no jurisdiction to decide on the case. The Supreme Court applied the well-established principle of Compétence-Compétence – materialized in article 1448 of the French Code de Procédure Civile – to stay the case, considering that the arbitration clause could not be set aside. The Court therefore judged that the applicability of the arbitration clause should be determined by the arbitrators by priority.

A year before, the ECJ had ruled in the opposite direction in a case where a jurisdiction clause was applicable in the insurance policy. In Assens Havn v. Navigator Management UK Ltd, the ECJ stated that the clause could not be opposed to the third party acting directly against the insurer. According to the Court, the insurers’ liability towards the insured has a contractual nature when based on the policy, whereas it is extra-contractual when the liability is based on a direct action from a third party. In a previous ruling the Court had considered (Sté financière et industrielle du Peloux (12 May 2005, C-112/03) that the jurisdiction clause cannot be opposed to the beneficiary of an insurance policy if he is not the policyholder (for instance in a collective insurance).

One sees a clear difference in treatment between arbitration clause and jurisdiction clause when it comes to deciding on their opposability to the victim exercising a direct action against the insurer.

Article 2061 paragraph 2 of the Civil Code states that an arbitration cannot be opposed to a party which has not contracted for the purpose of its business activity. The French Cour de cassation grounded its decision on the fact that the clauses of the main contract could be opposed to the third party. If the latter was entitled to apply the insurance contract, it was therefore entitled to invoke article 2061 paragraph 2 of the Civil Code.

Alexandre Malan
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