The passing-on defence – ie. whether the damages suffered by a purchaser of a product which has been the subject of a cartel are reduced if he passes on the overcharge to his own customers – had, as Tristan Jones blogged a few years ago, been the subject of much policy discussion but relatively little legal analysis in the English case law.
That remained the position when the Competition Appeal Tribunal heard the claim in Sainsbury’s Supermarkets v Mastercard Incorporated and others  CAT 11. The Judgment, handed down on 14 July, noted at §483 that there had been no case under English law substantively dealing with the pass-on defence. It represents the first English judgment which gives detailed consideration to the defence following full argument.
However, despite its length (running to some 300 pages), the Judgment leaves us with a number of big questions about the nature and scope of the defence.
The four key principles which emerge from the Judgment are as follows.
First, the Tribunal considered that the passing-on “defence” (their quotation marks) is no more than an aspect of the process of the assessment of damage. “The pass on “defence””, the Tribunal reasoned, “is in reality not a defence at all: it simply reflects the need to ensure that a claimant is sufficiently compensated and not overcompensated, by a defendant. The corollary is that the defendant is not forced to pay more than compensatory damages, when considering all of the potential claimants”(§484(3)). The “thrust of the defence” is to ensure that the claimant is not overcompensated and the defendant does not pay damages twice for the same wrong (§480(2)).
Second, the passing-on defence is only concerned with identifiable increases in prices by a firm to its customers and not with other responses by a purchaser such as cost savings or reduced expenditure. The Tribunal considered that although an economist might define pass-on more widely to include such responses (and there is a discussion of this in the Judgment at §§432-437), the legal definition of a passed-on cost differs because whilst “an economist is concerned with how an enterprise recovers its costs… a lawyer is concerned with whether or not a specific claim is well founded” (§484(4)).
Third, that the increase in price must be “causally connected with the overcharge, and demonstrably so” (§484(4)(ii)).
Fourth, that, given the danger in presuming pass-on of costs, “the pass-on “defence” ought only to succeed where, on the balance of probabilities, the defendant has shown that there exists another class of claimant, downstream of the claimant(s) in the action, to whom the overcharge has been passed on. Unless the defendant (and we stress that the burden is on the defendant) demonstrates the existence of such a class, we consider that a claimant’s recovery of the overcharge incurred by it should not be reduced or defeated on this ground” (emphasis original) (§484(5)).
But these principles leave a number of questions.
First, the Judgment firmly places the burden on defendant (and the importance of that is brought home when the Tribunal considered the issue of interest without this burden and, having found that Mastercard’s passing-on defence failed, nevertheless reduced the interest payable to Sainsbury’s by 50% because of passing-on). However, precisely what the Defendant has to demonstrate is less plain.
The Judgment refers to Mastercard’s passing-on defence failing because of a failure to show an increase in retail price (§485); language which reflects back to §484(4)(ii). But an increase in price is not the language used when the Tribunal states the test, and the Judgment leaves open whether demonstrating an increase in price would in itself be sufficient to satisfy the requirement to show the existence of “another class of claimant downstream of the claimant(s) in the action, to whom the overcharge has been passed on”.
Second, and similarly, there is no explanation of what the Tribunal means by the term “causally connected” (or, rather, “demonstrably” causally connected) when it refers to the need for the increase in price to be connected to the overcharge. It might be – as was suggested in our earlier blog – that, applying ordinary English principles of causation and mitigation, a party would need to show that the price increase or the benefit arises out of the breach. Given the Tribunal’s repeated statements that the defence is not really a defence at all but is simply an aspect of the process of the assessment of damages (§§480(2), 484(4)), such an approach would, at first blush, sit perfectly with the Judgment.
However, third, the Tribunal’s splitting of passing-on from other responses to an overcharge creates some confusion in this regard. Under the Tribunal’s approach cost savings are not to be considered under the passing-on defence (§484(4)) but must be considered under an analysis of mitigation (§§472-478). It is, however, difficult to separate out principles of mitigation and causation in this context. Indeed, the Tribunal, when discussing mitigation, expressly recognised that the issue is “akin to one of causation” (§475). But the Tribunal took pains to emphasise that an assessment of passing-on and mitigation are separate exercises, without explaining whether and if so in what way the test in the context of mitigation – said to be that the benefit must “bear some relation to” the damage suffered as a result of the breach (§475) – differs from that of causation in the passing-on defence.