ECJ Clarifies Consumer Protection Rules Relating To Sale Of Consumer Goods And Associated Guarantees

On 4 June 2015, the Court of Justice of the European Union (the "ECJ") clarified the scope of Directive 1999/44/EC of 25 May 1999 on certain aspects of the sale of consumer goods and associated guarantees (the "Directive") in the context of a request for a preliminary ruling from a Dutch Regional Court of Appeal (Case C-497/13, Froukje Faber v. Autobedrijf Hazet Ochten BV).

The request was made in the context of a dispute between Ms Froukje Faber and a garage called Autobedrijf Hazet Ochten BV (the "Hazet garage"). In May 2008, Ms Faber had purchased a secondhand vehicle at the Hazet garage. In September 2008, the vehicle caught fire and was entirely wrecked. The vehicle was towed to the Hazet garage by a tow truck and later sent to a scrapyard. In May 2009, Ms Faber notified the Hazet garage that she was holding it liable. While a technical investigation was needed to determine the cause of the vehicle fire, such an investigation could not take place as the vehicle had been scrapped in May 2009.

The ECJ was first asked whether a national court before which an action is brought is required to examine of its own motion whether the purchaser is to be regarded as a consumer within the meaning of the Directive, regardless of whether the party has relied on that status. The ECJ responded in the affirmative. The rationale for this approach is that the consumer protection system established by the Directive is predicated on the weak position of the consumer vis-à-vis the seller both in terms of bargaining power and level of knowledge. Accordingly, there is a substantial risk that the consumer, given his lack of awareness, will not rely on the rules that are intended to protect him.

Likewise, the ECJ held that a national court may, in the context of an appeal, raise Article 5(3) of the Directive of its own motion. Article 5(3) provides that "[u]nless proved otherwise, any lack of conformity which becomes apparent within six months of delivery of the goods shall be presumed to have existed at the time of delivery unless this presumption is incompatible with the nature of the goods or the nature of the lack of conformity". This relaxation of the consumer's burden of proof is justified by the fact that it is nearly impossible for a consumer to prove that the lack of conformity existed at the time of delivery, whereas it is generally far easier for the professional to show that the lack of conformity was not present at that time. In view of the...

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