The Norwegian Supreme Court Gives its Final Word in the Fosen-Linjen Saga [guest post by Dag Sørlie Lund]

The Fosen-Linjen Saga has finally come to a close with the Norwegian Supreme Court’s Judgment. Dag Sørlie Lund* kindly provides a sharp summary of the case while we await for any official translations. His fuller critical assessment of the Judgment will be included in the EPPPL special issue we are working on.

The Norwegian Supreme Court Gives its
Final Word in the Fosen-Linjen Saga

The so-called Fosen-Linjen Saga has finally come to its long-awaited end by the judgment of the Norwegian Supreme Court of 27 September 2019, more than 6 years after the company AtB tendered for the procurement of ferry services between Brekstad and Valset in the County of Trøndelag.

The contract was initially awarded to the company Norled. The competitor, Fosen-Linjen, which was ranked as the runner-up, claimed Norled had been awarded the contract unlawfully, and managed to stop the signing of the contract through interim measures. In the interim measures procedure two errors were identified by the courts:

  1. AtB had not required the necessary documentation for the award criteria “environment”; and

  2. AtB had not verified the viability in Norled’s offer regarding fuel consumption (which was part of the criteria “environment”).

As a result of this, AtB decided to cancel the tender procedure, and restart the whole process.

Fosen-Linjen did not submit a new tender, but instead filed a law suit against AtB claiming damages for the positive interest, or, in the alternative, the negative contract interest. The negative contract interests essentially amounts to the costs of tendering (damnum emergens), while the positive contract interest essentially amounts to the loss of profit (lucrum cessans).

The Supreme Court’s judgment clarifies several key questions about public procurement law related to the threshold for damages, and for the requirement of causality between the breach and the damages. Furthermore, the ruling contains interesting assessments of legitimate grounds to cancel a tender procedure, and the significance of the fact that a tenderer submits an offer despite being aware of errors in the procurement documents for the possibility to receive damages. The judgment is unanimous for all but the question of causality for damages for the negative contract interest, where one justice had a concurring opinion with a slightly different approach. For the purposes of this summary, I will not go further into the differences in the concurring opinion.

The Principle of State liability for breaches of EEA Law

The Supreme Court starts out by grounding the liability for damages in the general principle of State liability for breaches of EEA law. According to this principle an EEA State may be held liable for breaches of its obligations where the following three conditions are met:

  1. The breached provision of EEA law must be intended to confer rights on individuals and economic operators;

  2. The breach must be considered as sufficiently serious; and

  3. There must be a direct causal link between the breach of the obligation in question and the damage suffered by the aggrieved party.

The first condition was clearly met, and the case before the Supreme Court thus mainly concerned the question of the threshold for receiving damages and what it takes to establish a direct causal link for damages for negative costs. A particularly disputed question in the Fosen-Linjen Saga, has been whether the threshold for damages for the negative and the positive contract interests is different. Under Norwegian law, it has traditionally been easier to receive compensation for the negative costs than for the positive costs.

The Positive Contract Interest

The Supreme Court rejected Fosen-Linjen’s claim for damages for the positive interest since there were sufficient grounds to cancel the tender procedure. In fact, there were two grounds for cancelling the procedure.

First, the Supreme Court considered that the identification of the two errors in the interim measures proceedings raised serious doubts about the lawfulness of the procedure. These doubts were considered as sufficient grounds to cancel the tender procedure.

Second, it was also considered that the fact that AtB did not require the necessary documentation for the award criteria “environment”, also constituted sufficient grounds to cancel.

Consequently, the Supreme Court concluded that since the cancellation was lawful, Fosen-Linjen could not receive damages for the positive contract interest. This part of the judgment is somewhat confusing, since it appears to consider the question of causality rather than the question of whether the breach was sufficiently serious: since the tender procedure was lawfully cancelled, no one could ever be awarded the contract, and thus no one would ever have a claim for the loss of profit.

This is particularly confusing since the Appeals Selection Committee of the Supreme Court had explicitly rejected the question of causality for the positive contract interest from being heard by the Supreme Court. This is all the more puzzling since the Supreme Court appears to have been aware of this distinction, noting that the cancellation did not exclude the possibility for damages for the negative contract interest, which shows that the question of liability was not conceptually excluded by the fact of the cancellation.

The Negative Contract Interest

As mentioned, the traditional approach in Norwegian torts law is that the threshold is lower when it comes to damages for the negative costs.

Based on its reading of case law from the CJEU and the EFTA Court, the Supreme Court held, however, that the test for receiving damages, regardless of the categorization of the damages as negative or positive costs, is whether the breach in question may be considered “sufficiently serious”. The Supreme Court outright rejected the suggestion that the threshold might be lower under Norwegian tort law.

In the assessment of whether a breach is sufficiently serious, the Supreme Court noted that it may not be required to demonstrate fault or fraud, although both subjective and objective factors included in the traditional assessment of liability under national tort law, may be relevant to take into account.

Same same, but different

Despite this description of the test for receiving damages, the Supreme Court emphasized that the norm could not be characterized as more or less strict than would otherwise follow from Norwegian tort law, but that the assessment may be somewhat different.

The Supreme Court identified the norm as a sliding scale where the crucial point appears to be the level of discretion enjoyed by the contracting authority – from wide to none at all.

The rule that was breached in the tender procedure – namely the obligation to require necessary documentation for an award criterion – was found to be clear and precise. Accordingly, the Supreme Court found that AtB was liable for the negative costs. In that regard, it was pointed out that AtB twice received questions that raised doubts as to the lawfulness of the award criteria, which combined with the consequences caused by the breach, led to the conclusion that the threshold of “sufficiently serious” was passed.

It’s worth noting that despite the fact that the Supreme Court rejected that a contracting authority might escape liability by claiming not to possess the necessary powers, knowledge, means or resources, it still considered the complexity of the public procurement rules indicated a certain restraint or caution in establishing liability.

Direct Causal Link

Concerning the question of a direct causal link between the breach and the damage, the Supreme Court asked whether the tenderer would have submitted an offer if they had known about the error committed.

Even though the fact that AtB had not required the necessary documentation for the award criteria “environment” was clearly visible for Fosen-Linjen, the Supreme Court considered that this criterion was met since AtB had considered the procurement documents to be lawful despite the fact that the error had been pointed out twice during the tendering procedure. This part of the judgment is also confusing, as it is not entirely clear why the subjective view of the contract authority is relevant when assessing the question of causality.

Unanswered questions

The Supreme Court thus disentangled many key questions about liability for breaches of procurement rules, but some issues remain unanswered. For example, the Supreme Court did not rule on the question of whether liability is conceptually possible where the tendering process should have been cancelled, but this doesn’t happen. Furthermore, as mentioned above, the question regarding direct causal link for damages for the positive interest was not accepted to be heard by the Supreme Court, so the particularities of that assessment was not further clarified. Considering the attention these questions have received through the Fosen-Linjen Saga, it is probably only a matter of time before these will materialize themselves in future cases, with new sagas in national courts and in Luxembourg.

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Dag Sørlie Lund

Dag Sørlie Lund is part of our European and Competition law team. He has previously worked at the Department of Legal Affairs in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the EFTA Court, the EFTA Surveillance Authority (ESA), and as an attorney. He has experience in advising clients in EU/EEA and competition law, including state aid and public procurement law.

Dag has handled a number of cases concerning the EFTA Surveillance Authority, and has pleaded several cases before the Court of Justice for the European Union and the EFTA Court. Dag has lived in Spain, Belgium and Luxembourg, and speaks Spanish and English fluently.

Two related comments on the Fosen-Linjen saga

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**This post is only for enthusiasts of the regulation of procurement damages out there**

You may have missed it (though being an enthusiast, you probably didn’t) but, in the middle of the summer, the EFTA Court U-turned in its Fosen-Linjen II Judgment by stressing that ‘Article 2(1)(c) of the Remedies Directive does not require that any breach of the rules governing public procurement in itself is sufficient to award damages’ (see here).

Notoriously, this was a 180° move away from its earlier Fosen-Linjen I Judgment, where it had controversially stated that ‘A simple breach of public procurement law is in itself sufficient to trigger the liability of the contracting authority … pursuant to Article 2(1)(c) of Directive 89/665/EEC‘ (see here and here and, for extended discussion, A Sanchez-Graells, ‘You Can’t Be Serious: Critical Reflections on the Liability Threshold for Damages Claims for Breach of EU Public Procurement Law after the EFTA Court’s Fosen-Linjen Opinion’ (2018) 1(1) Nordic Journal of European Law 1-23).

The Fosen-Linjen saga deserves careful analysis and we are putting together a special issue of the European Procurement & Public Private Partnership Law Review that will provide complementary perspectives from EEA, Norwegian, EU, comparative and fundamental rights law. I have also prepared a longer case note for another law review. In case they are of interest, I have made drafts of both of those available on SSRN. Some overlap was unavoidable, so please read selectively!

  • Sanchez-Graells, Albert, Liability threshold for damages in public procurement: The EFTA Court’s Fosen-Linjen Saga (September 17, 2019). Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=3455222.

  • Sanchez-Graells, Albert, The EFTA Court’s Fosen-Linjen saga on the liability threshold for damages claims for breach of EU public procurement law: a there and back again walk (September 16, 2019). To be published in a forthcoming special issue of the European Procurement & Public Private Partnership Law Review. Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=3455213.

Recording of seminar on procurement damages post-Fosen Linjen available

The Bergen Center for Competition Law & Economics (BECCLE) has now published the recording of the excellent seminar "Damages for breach of Public Procurement Law – Fosen-Linjen AS v AtB AS and its implications" held on 1 March--in which I had the pleasure and honour to participate. The recording includes four excellent and very lively presentations (modesty apart): 

  • Dag Sørlie Lund – “The Norwegian law and practice on damages arising from public procurement breaches before Fosen-Linjen AS v AtB AS, and the challenges it entails.”
  • Kirsi-Maria Halonen – “A comparative approach to damages: The Finnish and Swedish practice on damages arising from public procurement breaches.”
  • Albert Sánchez Graells – “Approaches to the ‘seriousness’ of the breach: The EFTA Court vs the UK Supreme Court.”
  • Halvard Haukeland Fredriksen – “Norway after the Fosen-Linjen AS v AtB AS case: What is to be expected and what are its repercussions – here and elsewhere.”

Given that the case is headed for the Norwegian Supreme Court after the Frostating Court of Appeal decided not to follow the EFTA Court's Opinion, the discussion we had in the seminar may be of particular interest. My arguments are further developed in this paper.

More discussion of damages for breach of EU procurement rules

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Dr Ignacio Herrera Anchistegui has organised a greatly interesting BECCLE seminar on "Damages for breach of Public Procurement Law – Fosen-Linjen AS v AtB AS and its implications". It will take place this Thursday 1 March 2018 in Bergen. I have the pleasure and honour of presenting my views on the EFTA Court's Fosen-Linjen Judgment and to provide a comparative view with the UK Supreme Court's decision in Nuclear Decommissioning Authority. These are issues I had already addressed in the blog (see here and here) and, in trying to provide a more comprehensive critique of the case at the seminar, I have now tried to restructure my initial ideas and develop them in some more detail in a new SSRN working paper.

I hope the discussion will provide plenty additional ideas and food for thought, and I will try to improve the paper after the BECCLE seminar in view of that. Any additional comments or feedback on how to get it ready for publication would also be most welcome: a.sanchez-graells@bristol.ac.uk. Thank you for reading.

The abstract is as follows:

This paper offers some reflections on the position advanced by the EFTA Court that a simple breach of EU public procurement law is in itself sufficient to trigger the contracting authority's liability in damages (Fosen-Linjen). I argue that this position is flawed because it deviates from previous case law of the Court of Justice of the European Union (Spijker), and because it is based on interpretive errors and internal contradictions in the EFTA Court's reasoning. In criticising the EFTA Court's Judgment from the perspective of the harmonisation of EU law, I rely on the better view of the UK Supreme Court. The latter held that the liability of a contracting authority for the breach of EU public procurement rules under the remedies directive is assimilated to that of the State under the general EU law doctrine of State liability and thus requires a sufficiently serious breach (Nuclear Decommissioning Authority). My reflections are based on the need to keep procurement damages litigation constrained to its main function and limited to justified cases. I use this normative position to argue against the expansion of private enforcement of EU public procurement law as a correction of the shortcomings in its public enforcement.

The full reference of the paper is: A Sanchez-Graells, 'You Can't Be Serious: Critical Reflections on the Liability Threshold for Damages Claims for Breach of EU Public Procurement Law' (February 24, 2018). Presented at the BECCLE seminar on 'Public Procurement and Damages,' University of Bergen, 1 March 2018. Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=3129430.