Landmark SFT decision concerning negative declaratory counterclaims (“negative Feststellungswiderklagen”)
In June 2017, the Swiss Federal Tribunal (SFT) has rendered a precedent with wide-ranging consequences in the realm of civil proceedings.
The written judgment in question dated 13 June 2017, with the reference 4A_576/2016, has been uploaded to the SFT’s website on 15 September 2017. It has been marked by the SFT to be included in its official publication of precedents. In this post, I will briefly explain why this new precedent is so important.
In the case at issue, the claimant filed a partial claim in an amount of CHF 30’000.00 against an insurance company, the defendant. In his claim, the claimant had expressly mentioned that the claim covers only part of the relevant damage and that further claims are reserved.
Up to the SFT judgment discussed in this post, it was assumed that filing such a partial claim would, in essence, have the advantage for the claimant that the costs related to litigating such a claim would be limited, since under the relevant Swiss statutes the commercial litigation-related cost risk increases significantly with the amount in dispute. In other words, the higher the amount in dispute the higher the commercial litigation-related cost risk in Switzerland.
The amount of the partial claim in question (CHF 30’000.00) had been chosen deliberately by the claimant, because of two reasons:
(i) First, and significantly simplifying the relevant legal issues for the purposes of this post, with a partial claim of CHF 30’000.00 the claimant had hoped to avoid a negative declaratory counterclaim that would increase the value in dispute and with that the litigation-related cost risk. The claimant essentially assumed that because claims up to a value in dispute of CHF 30’000.00 are to be treated in expedited proceedings, not in ordinary proceedings, no negative declaratory counterclaim, which would increase the value in dispute up to the full claim, could be filed against his partial claim.
(ii) Second, the amount of CHF 30’000.00 was high enough to permit the appeal of first and second instance judgments to the SFT.
Now, with its statement of defense, the defendant filed a negative declaratory counterclaim in which it asked the court to retain that the defendant does not owe anything to the claimant. In German, such a counterclaim is referred to as “negative Feststellungswiderklage”.
If admitted, such a “negative Feststellungswiderklage” increases, as mentioned, the value in dispute to the amount of the full claim which, pursuant to the second instance cantonal high court, in the case at issue exceeds CHF 700’000.00.
Both the first instance district court as well as the second instance cantonal high court refused to admit the above-mentioned counterclaim. In relation to these decisions, the defendant filed an appeal with the SFT, asking the SFT to order the lower courts to admit the relevant negative declaratory counterclaim.
It has to be stressed at this juncture that up to this new precedent, the predominant Swiss legal doctrine was of the opinion that in relation to partial claims of CHF 30’000.00, which, as mentioned, are to be dealt with in expedited proceedings, no “negative Feststellungswiderklagen” may be filed (see consideration 4.2.1 of the precedent in question).
Still, in the precedent discussed herein, the SFT decided that such counterclaims may be filed, even if the counterclaim pushes the value in dispute above the limit of CHF 30’000.00 for expedited proceedings. The quintessence in the SFT’s precedent reads as follows (at consideration 4.4 of the judgment):
„Die genannten Überlegungen führen zum folgenden Ergebnis: Erhebt der Kläger eine echte Teilklage, für die aufgrund ihres Streitwerts von höchstens Fr. 30’000.– nach Art. 243 Abs. 1 ZPO das vereinfachte Verfahren gilt, hindert Art. 224 Abs. 1 ZPO die beklagte Partei nicht daran, eine negative Feststellungswiderklage zu erheben, auch wenn deren Streitwert die Anwendbarkeit des ordentlichen Verfahrens zur Folge hat. Haupt- und Widerklage sind diesfalls zusammen im ordentlichen Verfahren zu beurteilen. Die Auffassung, wonach die negative Feststellungswiderklage bloss unter der Voraussetzung zulässig sein soll, dass auf sie aufgrund ihres Streitwerts die gleiche Verfahrensart anwendbar ist wie auf die Teilklage, erweist sich in diesem Sinne als bundesrechtswidrig.“
The effect of this new SFT precedent 4A_576/2016 is that henceforth claimants do not have the option of filing a cost-efficient “pilot case” anymore, at least not without running the risk of the value in dispute being increased by a “negative Feststellungswiderklage”. This is a real game changer from the perspective of claimants, because depending on the amount of the claim, the cost risks under the relevant Swiss statutes are very significant.
In my opinion, this new situation increases the need for reforms under Swiss law, to reduce the cost risks related to civil litigations, which are currently simply too important for many claimants.
This article has first been published on LinkedIn on 16 September 2017.
PHH, Zurich, 4 January 2018 (www.haberbeck.ch)
The information contained in this post is for general informational purposes only and is not intended to constitute legal advice. Readers of this post should not take any actions or decisions without seeking specific legal advice.