As reported by various news sources today and summarized in this entry from Ben Hallman at The Am Law Litigation Daily, a Dutch court has approved a settlement of claims of a class of institutional investors against Royal Dutch Shell. The settlement was approved under a 2005 Dutch law that allows collective settlements on an opt-out basis, although it doesn’t allow class action suits outside the settlement context. For more detail on the law, the Dutch Act on Collective Settlement of Mass Damages, see this 2008 American Lawyer article by Michael Goldhaber, also cited in Hallman’s post. The settlement resolved claims of European investors who originally had been included in a would-be international class of investors in a New Jersey federal court in a ”foreign cubed” class action–a class action filed on behalf of foreign investors who bought a foreign company’s stock on a foreign exchange. Rather than settle with the plaintiffs’ attorneys who had filed the U.S. case, however, the company agreed with a separate firm to settle the European investor’s claims in a European forum.
Goldhaber’s article describes the facts and history of the case and legislation in a fair amount of detail, so I will simply refer anyone interested in the details to that article. As described in the article, however, the Dutch settlement came about as a result of a series of events that may or may not continue to be repeated into the future: 1) a class action filed in the U.S. that included European investors; 2) the Dutch company’s agreement to settle in Dutch court with attorneys representing non-U.S. investors; 3) a decision by the U.S. court to decline to exercise jurisdiction over the claims of the non-U.S. investors; and, finally, 4) approval of the European settlement by the Dutch courts.
It would seem that whether the Dutch Act on Collective Settlement of Mass Damages becomes a common vehicle for resolving potential liability for European companies is contingent, at least in part, on how long the viability of “foreign cubed” class actions remains unsettled in the U.S. The Second Circuit Court of Appeals’ recent Morrison decision (discussed in this October 2008 ClassActionBlawg entry) was a setback for plaintiffs seeking to pursue foreign-cubed claims in U.S. courts, but did not foreclose the possibility of foreign-cubed claims entirely. If it became widely established that foreign-cubed cases have little or no likelihood of success in U.S. courts, then plaintiffs’ lawyers would be less likely to pursue those claims in the U.S. in the first place and defendants would presumably face less pressure to settle under the Dutch law, which does not support class liability in a contested case. However, until the law surrounding U.S. federal court jurisdiction in foreign-cubed cases does become more well-defined, Royal Dutch Shell’s strategy could signify a trend.