Using the Economic Loss Doctrine to Defend Company Officers
One of the interesting aspects of litigating ERISA cases is the extent to which, for me anyway, it is part and parcel of a broader practice of representing directors and officers in litigation. From top hat agreements they have entered into, to being targeted in breach of fiduciary duty cases for decisions they participated in related to the management of an ERISA governed plan, directors and officers of all size companies spend a lot of their working life operating – in terms of legal issues – under the rubric of ERISA. In some ways, this is even more true of officers of entrepreneurial, emerging or smaller companies; due to the relative lack of hierarchy or distinct departments, in comparison to the largest corporations, officers of these types of companies often find themselves involved to one degree or another in almost every aspect of the company’s business, including retirement and other benefits that are likely to be governed by ERISA.
For me, one of the more interesting aspects of representing officers and directors in litigation is the question of when, if ever, they can be reached personally for actions that one would otherwise expect to be the responsibility of the company itself. Although lawyers are all taught in law school about the sanctity of the corporate form and the protection against liability it grants to company officers, lawyers quickly learn that, in practice, that is a principle more often honored in the breach. Both common and statutory law offer plaintiffs various ways around the protection of the corporate form, including, when it comes to retirement or benefit plans, breach of fiduciary duty claims under ERISA. The theories of piercing the corporate veil and participation in torts can also be exploited to avoid the shield against liability granted by the corporate form in many types of cases, although those can be difficult avenues to use to impose liability on a corporate officer.
All of these issues have one thing in common, which is a question of line drawing, consisting of determining exactly where the line should rest between the protection of the corporate form and the ability to impose liability on a company’s officers. One aspect of this line drawing that has always held great interest for me is the economic loss doctrine, which holds that contractual liabilities cannot be used as the basis for prosecuting tort claims. In the context of defending officers and directors against claims for personal liability based on a company’s actions, it serves as a strong defensive line against imposing tort liability on a corporate officer for the contractual liabilities and undertakings of the company itself. You can find a good example of this defense tactic in this summary judgment opinion issued by the business court in Philadelphia last week in one of my cases, in which I defended a corporate officer in exactly that type of case.