AG Kokott's Opinion of 30 January 2014 in case C-557/12 KONE is generating significant debate (see the very interesting criticism in EUTopia) as it deals with a very complicated and controversial issue that could either spur or restrict the scope of damages actions following on from cartel violations (and, more generally, competition law infringements).
The case is concerned with the possibility to claim so called "umbrella damages"--that is, as per the description provided by the referring Austrian Supreme Court, whether "any person may claim from members of a cartel damages also for the loss which he has been caused by a person not party to the cartel who, benefiting from the protection of the increased market prices, raises his own prices for his products more than he would have done without the cartel (umbrella pricing)". In my view, the Opinion of AG Kokott deserves some criticism in its support for such claims.
As a preliminary point, I think that it is interesting to see how AG Kokott redrafted the issue, and considered that the case concerns "umbrella pricing [which takes place] when undertakings that are not themselves party to a cartel, benefiting from the protection of the cartel’s practices (operating ‘under the cartel’s umbrella’, so to speak), knowingly or unknowingly set their own prices higher than they would otherwise have been able to under competitive conditions. Does European Union law require that customers of undertakings not party to the cartel should be able to claim compensation for the inflated prices charged by those undertakings from the members of the cartel before the national courts? Or, conversely, may such an obligation to award compensation be excluded in national civil law on the ground that the loss suffered is indirect and too remote?" (emphasis added).
Already at this stage, I would submit that the framework for analysis is flawed. If the "outsider" to the cartel is fully innocent (i.e. is not aware of the existence of the cartel), its behaviour is indeed reflective of competitive conditions (distorted, but still competitive) and therefore that specific increase in prices should not be taken into account for the purposes of the design of competition law rules and their enforcement.
On the contrary, if the "outsider" is not innocent (i.e. knows about the cartel), then the increase in prices makes it guilty of at least a (unilateral?) concerted practice by adhering to the cartelised mechanics of the market and, consequently, the damages derived from the raise in prices should be borne by such "outsider" as the infringer of competition rules--and only by the "insiders" in the cartel if they then incorporate the "outsider's" behaviour as part of the distorted market mechanism.
In my view, any extension of this general framework would probably be too remote in terms of causality and the allowance for "umbrella damages" claims would create a system of excessive private antitrust enforcement which net contribution to aggregate welfare would be doubtful [more generally, on the doubtful desirability of an overgrowth of damages claims based on indirect or disperse competition damages, see Marcos and Sánchez Graells, "Towards a European Tort Law?
Damages Actions for Breach of the EC Antitrust Rules: Harmonising Tort Law
Through the Back Door?":
For these reasons, I generally disagree with her Opinion on its substance. However, more detailed criticism will require some further thoughts.