Federal Supreme Court of Switzerland Confirms Praxis To Interpret the Scope of an Arbitration Agreement Broadly Once Consent To Arbitrate Is Established Without Doubt

In its recent decision of 20 September 2011, 4A_103/2011, the Federal Supreme Court of Switzerland had to determine whether a panel consisting of three arbitrators of the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS) in Lausanne, Switzerland, had rightly decided that an arbitration clause contained in a licensing agreement also encompassed disputes arising out of sales agreements entered into by the same parties.

The facts of the case are straightforward. On January 1, 2006 a manufacturer of sports equipment and a boxing association entered into a licensing agreement which, inter alia, entitled the manufacturer to produce and commercialize boxing equipment carrying the label of the boxing association against payment of royalties. The arbitration clause contained in the licensing agreement read as follows:

“Should a disagreement over the interpretation of any terms of this Agreement arise, the Parties agree to submit the dispute to the Court of Arbitration for Sport, Lausanne, Switzerland, whose decision shall be final and binding on both Parties. While the pending question is being arbitrated, the remainder of this Agreement shall remain in effect.”

Subsequent to the execution of the licensing agreement the parties concluded several sales agreements according to which the manufacturer furnished the boxing association with boxing equipment produced under the licensing agreement.

In 2007, the boxing association claimed that the licensing agreement had expired on 31 December 2006. As a result, the manufacturer initiated arbitration proceedings before the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS). In turn, the boxing association objected to the jurisdiction of the CAS by submitting that the phrase “disagreement over the interpretation of any terms of this Agreement” contained in the arbitration clause of the licensing agreement merely referred to the licensing agreement rather than to the sales agreements. The CAS panel rejected this argument and assumed jurisdiction over the case by construing the arbitration agreement to encompass disputes connected with the licensing agreement.

On 4 February 2011, the boxing association challenged the issued CAS award before the Federal Supreme Court of Switzerland including for lack of jurisdiction of the arbitral tribunal (article 190(2)(b) of the Swiss Private International Law Act).

After observing that the existence of an arbitration agreement shall not be assumed off-handedly, the Federal Supreme Court of Switzerland – confirming prior case law on this issue (e.g. BGE 116 Ia 56; BGE 129 III 675) – stated that once there is no doubt about the parties’ consent to subject to arbitration the scope of the arbitration agreement is to be interpreted extensively.

The court then turned towards the issue of construction of the arbitration clause. Again confirming existing case law on the point, the court observed that the phrase “any dispute related to the interpretation of this Agreement” was not restrictive in any way and particularly included (i) disputes relating to the existence, validity and termination of contractual relationships originating from the contract containing the arbitration clause in question, as well as (ii) questions which were merely indirectly connected to the dispute submitted to arbitration. The court further held that, as a rule, the scope of an arbitration agreement contained in a contract could encompass additional contracts and annexes as long as the latter did not contain specific clauses providing for other dispute resolution mechanisms.

Albeit noting that the wording of the arbitration clause in question suggested that only the licensing agreement was subject to arbitration, the Federal Supreme Court of Switzerland concluded that such narrow interpretation of the arbitration clause would not account for the specific circumstances of the case at hand. The circumstances that militated for a broader interpretation were the following: First, the bylaws of the boxing association provided that any disputes shall be arbitrated before the CAS. Although these bylaws were not applicable in the present case, the court nevertheless found that the boxing association was acting inconsistently. Second, the court was not able to detect any objective reason why the dispute at hand should be resolved by a state court. Third and finally, the Swiss Federal Supreme Court found decisive that the parties had come to an understanding that exceeded the licensing agreement in itself and that was closely related to the subsequent sales agreements.

On all these grounds, the Federal Supreme Court of Switzerland held that the CAS tribunal had rightly asserted jurisdiction over the case at hand, and dismissed the challenge to the CAS award.

This recent decision is important in that it confirms the Swiss Federal Supreme Court’s practice to interpret the scope of an arbitration clause extensively once the parties’ intent to arbitrate is established. The reason why the court rather restrictively approaches the issue of consent to arbitrate is that an arbitration clause has far-reaching consequences insofar it ousts the jurisdiction of the state courts – at least as long as any one of the parties invokes the arbitration clause (see e.g. BGE 129 III 675). The Swiss Federal Supreme Court’s broad construction of the scope of the arbitration clause in the case at hand is not only a manifestation of the strong pro-arbitration policy underpinning the SPILA but also helps ensuring judicial economy and efficiency.

Simone Stebler graduated summa cum laude from the University of Fribourg School of Law and holds an LL.M. in International Business Regulation, Litigation & Arbitration from NYU (Arthur T. Vanderbilt Scholar). She is admitted to practice in Switzerland.