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Screen-scraping: Jurisdiction and Default Judgment Confirmed

The Irish High Court has recently dealt with another screen-scraping case[1] where it had to confirm jurisdiction before deciding whether it could give judgment and make orders. This was despite the fact that related proceedings were being conducted elsewhere. An additional complicating factor was that the defendant to the Irish proceedings had not entered an appearance or otherwise formally defended those proceedings on the merits. In confirming the court had jurisdiction and it would proceed to make the orders sought, the decision highlights the importance of the jurisdictional provisions in a website’s terms of use and identifies the dangers of not appearing to and not defending the proceedings.

Background

The plaintiff, Ryanair, is a well-known airline which offers flights and related services on its website to customers. It brought proceedings in Ireland to restrain Flightbox, a Polish company, from extracting data from Ryanair’s website through the use of automated software which ends up on travel agents’ websites without Ryanair’s authority or consent. This practice is known as ‘screen-scraping’. Ryanair had, over a number of years, been involved in proceedings against related companies to identify and hold the correct parties liable for the appearance of Ryanair’s price, flight and timetable (PFT) data on a Romanian entity’s website. Flightbox had itself brought proceedings in Poland in which it had sought orders based on competition law principles which would enable it to screen scrape PFT data from Ryanair’s website. It was argued that Ryanair was abusing its dominance in the relevant market. Ryanair issued proceedings in Ireland but, having been served with notice of those proceedings, Flightbox did not formally appear before the Irish court. Ryanair applied for judgment in default of appearance and various declarations and orders by way of prohibitory injunction. After the hearing of the motion, but before delivery of the ruling, Flightbox did e-mail a letter to the High Court Central Office for the attention of the court, which reprised a document Ryanair had received on Flightbox’s behalf.

Legal principles

The first issue the court had to determine was whether it had jurisdiction under the Brussels Recast Regulation,[2] and specifically Article 28, which deals with the scenario of no appearance being entered. Flightbox had maintained by way of its communication that the prior existence of the related Polish proceedings it had brought meant that the Polish courts should be entitled to determine the issues. As a consequence, the Irish proceedings should be stayed pending the determination of the Polish proceedings. Ryanair’s core position was that, by virtue of the terms of use of its website, there had been a prior agreement to submit to the exclusive jurisdiction of the Irish court within the meaning of Article 25 of the Brussels Recast Regulation. This meant that the courts reflected by that choice, the Irish courts, should have exclusive jurisdiction to hear the case. Mr Justice O’Higgins accepted that the jurisdiction issues raised by the case were complex and he relied on judgments from other similar proceedings, including related proceedings brought by Ryanair against the Romanian entity whose website displayed Ryanair’s PFT data.[3] In that case, an extensive review of other relevant case law, much of it involving Ryanair, was undertaken. That analysis confirmed that the interaction with Ryanair’s website meant there was a consensus as to jurisdictional choice.[4] Mr Justice O’Higgins found there was a similar consensus here between Ryanair and Flightbox as it was not possible to obtain PFT data from Ryanair’s website without agreeing to Ryanair’s terms of use which contained an exclusive jurisdiction clause in favour of the Irish courts. Regarding Flightbox’s assertion that the Polish courts should first determine the issues, Judge O’Higgins concluded that Article 31(2) of the Brussels Recast Regulation meant that a jurisdictional agreement under Article 25 required that any other court had to stay its proceedings in favour of the court which was stated to have jurisdiction by virtue of that agreement. Therefore, it was the Polish court which had to stay its proceedings unless and until the Irish court declared it had no jurisdiction.

The court then moved on to consider if Ryanair had met the required proofs for obtaining judgment in default of appearance. Based on the affidavits submitted by Ryanair, Mr Justice O’Higgins indicated he was satisfied that Ryanair had a strong substantive case against Flightbox. In addition, he held that the Irish courts had jurisdiction to determine that dispute and that the proceedings were duly served on Flightbox. He was also satisfied that Ryanair had met the technical requirements under the court rules for entering judgment in default of appearance in terms of what the relevant affidavits had to address and what Ryanair needed to file. He noted that Flightbox had been afforded ample opportunity to enter an appearance and to fully defend the proceedings but had chosen not to and, in any event, it could apply to set aside the default judgment if it met the required conditions. However, he noted that a motion for judgment in default of appearance does not ordinarily involve the court determining the merits.

By virtue of the injunctive and declaratory reliefs sought, Ryanair had to persuade the court it was entitled to them. Mr Justice O’Higgins ultimately accepted that he was entitled[5] to grant the reliefs despite no appearance by Flightbox if the entitlement threshold had been met. He concluded that it had and was therefore prepared to grant the specific reliefs sought. Interestingly, none of the competition issues that had been put forward as a defence in other cases were before the Irish court for consideration here.

Conclusion

The decision usefully confirms the position adopted in other cases that the jurisdictional provisions in a website’s terms of use are important in determining whether the court can properly be said to have jurisdiction. This is so even if proceedings are ongoing elsewhere. The decision also clarifies the serious consequences of not appearing to and not defending the proceedings, which can include the granting of injunctive and declaratory relief on an undefended basis.

For more information and expert advice on commercial disputes, contact a member of our Commercial Disputes team.

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[1] Ryanair DAC v Flightbox SP ZOO [2023] IEHC 689

[2] REGULATION (EU) No 1215/2012 OF THE EUROPEAN PARLIAMENT AND OF THE COUNCIL of 12 December 2012 on jurisdiction and the recognition and enforcement of judgments in civil and commercial matters (recast)

[3] Ryanair DAC v SC Vola [2019] IEHC 239

[4] For example, Ryanair v Billigfluege [2015] IESC 11; Ryanair v On the Beach [2013] IEHC 124

[5] As was done in Trafalgar Developments Ltd & Ors v. Mazepin & Ors [2019] IEHC 7



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