PS11743-PS11947-PS12159-PS12181-PS12262 - Italian Competition Authority, two-year limitation period: Abbanoa and Ente Acquedotti Siciliani (E.A.S.) fined, new investigations initiated
According to the Authority, Abbanoa and E.A.S. have failed to comply with their information obligations and rejected the requests of users to obtain the recognition of the two-year limitation period on receivables invoiced after 1 January 2020 relating to water consumption dating back more than two years. The Italian Competition Authority has initiated three new proceedings against the municipalities of Venafro (Isernia), Letino (Caserta) and San Nicola (Caserta)
The Italian Competition Authority has imposed a 5 million euro fine on the company Abbanoa S.p.A., manager of the integrated water service for the Sardinia Region, and a 500,000 euro fine on Ente Acquedotti Siciliani in administrative compulsory liquidation (liquidazione coatta amministrativa), the former manager of the integrated water service in some municipalities of the Sicily Region.
From 1 January 2020, the rule of the two-year limitation period (or short limitation period), introduced by the 2018 Budget Law and amended by the 2020 Budget Law, also applies to water services. Therefore, from that date, consumers can invoke the limitation period for amounts referring to water consumption dating back more than two years from the date the bill was issued. Operators must also state in their invoices or in an attached document any amounts referring to consumption dating back more than two years, differentiating them from other amounts, in accordance with the methods set out in the regulations.
The proceedings conducted by the Authority have shown, however, that Abbanoa and E.A.S. have disregarded, in issuing invoices and payment reminders, the information obligations prescribed for water utilities with respect to the two-year limitation period; moreover, they have systematically rejected the limitation period objection with respect to charges invoiced after 1 January 2020 and relating to water consumption dating back to more than two years prior to the actual invoice.
The Authority has established that this conduct constitutes an unfair commercial practice in that it was contrary to professional diligence and likely to distort consumer conduct to an appreciable extent in relation, moreover, to a service of primary interest. Different instances of conduct and different economic situations were ascertained for the two operators, resulting in a significant difference in the fines imposed.
In particular, several cases of unlawful behaviour were found for Abbanoa, characterised by a significant degree of offensiveness due to the failure to respect key consumer rights and/or to hindering the exercise of said rights. For this reason, the Authority decided to impose on Abbanoa the maximum fine provided for by the Consumer Code.
To date, E.A.S. has failed to provide users with timely and complete information on the entry into force of the rules on the two-year limitation period in the water sector, both on the Entity's website and in the invoices and payment reminders issued, in bulk, in 2020 and 2021. Despite the seriousness and duration of the established conduct, the Authority has nevertheless decided to impose the fine also taking into account the fact that E.A.S. is in administrative compulsory liquidation.
At the same time, the AGCM is in contact with many local authorities that manage the Integrated Water Service and that do not seem to apply the two-year limitation period correctly. In this regard, the Authority has also involved the ANCI (National Association of Italian Municipalities) for a direct intervention against all municipal administrations that manage the water service, in order to standardise the conduct of all public managers and ensure consumers have the same treatment in relation to the two-year limitation period regulations.
In particular, three new proceedings were initiated against the Municipalities of Venafro (Isernia), Letino (Caserta) and San Nicola La Strada (Caserta), after some unsuccessful attempts at moral suasion in which the Authority had requested the municipalities to modify their conduct by urging them to apply the new two-year limitation period properly and to accept the requests submitted by consumers.
Rome, 25 July 2022