Hrabalek v Hrabalek
Wilmots have successfully secured the return of a very rare collection of classic Lancia Stratos cars to their owner, an Austrian national. The case concerned the ownership of four Lancia Stratos cars, a 1971 Lancia Stratos HF Prototype, a 1975 Lancia Stratos HF Silhouette Turbo, a 1975 Lancia Stradale Street Car and a 1975 Lancia Stratos Safari, all of which were made famous by the relentless campaigning of rally driver Sandro Munari. These cars, amongst others, had been acquired over a number of years by a very well known collector, Mr Ernst Hrabalek, for whom we acted. Mr Hrabalek lent the cars to his son, Mr Christian Hrabalek, on various occasions and over a number of years in order to promote Christian’s career as a car designer. As a result Christian exhibited some or all of them at famous car shows such as Ville d’Este in Italy and Pebble Beach in California. We became involved when the relationship between the two started to deteriorate and Christian decided not to return the cars to his father as he had promised to. Christian cut all contact with his father, removed the cars from Germany and secretly stored them at a secure car storage facility in England in the hope that they would be safe. Wilmots found the cars and obtained a without notice freezing injunction in November 2013 against Christian preventing any further movement of the Cars. As a Defence to the claim by the father for the return of the cars Christian claimed that the cars had been ‘gifted’ to him by his father in 2000. This was denied by the father even though he admitted that he had promised to one day leave the cars to his son as part of his inheritance.
The matter came to trial in London’s High Court before Mrs Justice McGowan over the course of a 9 day hearing in February 2015 where evidence spanning a period of almost 15 years was given via video link and in person on behalf of both parties. The judge found unanimously in favour of the father and relied particularly upon email communications sent between the two of them shortly before their relationship soured. In one email in particular, written 7 years after the date on which Christian claimed the cars had been given to him, he thanked his father for a promise to one day give him one of the cars (the HF Prototype), which on his own case had already been given to him. Evidence was also obtained by us from the German Police Authority in the form of a forged sales invoice which had been used by Christian to register one of the cars in Germany which purported to show that Christian had purchased the car in Italy in 1996, some 4 years before he claimed that the car had been given to him by his father. Unsurprisingly Christian’s evidence was rejected by the judge who concluded that “the Claimant did not, in fact, make the gift and further…… the Defendant knew that the gift had not been made. The cars were and remain the property of the Claimant.”
Even though the legal issues in the case were governed by Austrian law (as the gift was purportedly made at an event in Austria), and German law (as one of the cars was registered in Germany) and expert evidence had to be obtained for each, the case highlights very important lessons for anyone who either wants to make or receive gifts of cars or items of this nature with a high financial or sentimental value. Whether or not a gift has been properly made will depend largely upon what evidence there is of that gift having been made. It is simply not good enough for anyone to just physically hand possession of a car to another and hope that that act in itself will constitute sufficient evidence of the passing of title. It is imperative to ensure that a proper contract is created evidencing the passing of title. Equally where you are acting for a potential purchaser of a car from a vendor who sells as a receiver of a gift, always ensure that the gift to that vendor is properly evidenced. Another very important lesson to be taken from this case is never forget what you have written in emails if you expect to present another version of events many years later!