As a result of series of legal developments, securities class action lawsuits in Australia have become have become increasingly common in recent years, and signs are that these trends will continue, according to a comprehensive study of Australian securities class action litigation issued on May 7, 2010 by NERA Economic Consulting.


The report can be found here, and NERA’s May 7 press release can be found here. (Hat Tip to Adam Savett of the Securities Litigation Watch blog, who has a post about the NERA study here).


Although the Australian laws permitting securities class action litigation have been in place since 1992, there were only two cases filed prior to 2000. There were a total of five cases filed during the years 2000 to 2003, and the filings began to increase steadily during 2004 and thereafter. There were a record number of cases filed in 2009, when six securities class action lawsuits were filed. There were a total of 22 securities class action lawsuits filed during the period 2004 to 2009.


A number of factors have contributed to the growing numbers of lawsuits. The first is that, according to the NERA study, "following the high-profile collapse of a number of companies in the early 2000s … shareholders have demonstrated that they are increasingly willing to use class actions as a tool to protect themselves from harmful conduct, and to punish offenders."


In addition, there have been several key case law developments that have removed some impediments, including decisions clarifying that shareholders can seek damages when their loss is distinct from any loss suffered by the company, and other decisions clarifying the rights of shareholders suing for damages against companies that are under administration.


However, perhaps the most significant development behind the increase in securities class action litigation in Australia is the "emergence of commercial litigation funding." Because of the prohibition against contingency fees, as well as the risks of costs awards against unsuccessful litigants, there were substantial financial barriers against pursuing this type of litigation.


Seventeen out of the 24 Australian securities class action lawsuits that have been filed since 2004 have been financed by a commercial litigation funder. The Australian commercial litigation funding business is dominated by IMF (Australia) Ltd., the first publicly listed litigation funder in Australia. IMF has financed 14 securities class action lawsuits and has proposed financing in an additional three suits that have not yet been filed. Though IMF dominates, according to the NERA study, a number of new firms have recently entered the market.


(Readers who, like me, are fascinated by this concept of litigation funding may want to have a look at IMF’s website, linked above.)


The two primary causes of action in Australian securities class action lawsuits are "contraventions of the continuous disclosure rules" and alleged violations of the laws prohibiting misleading and deceptive conduct. A number of suits also allege breaches of fiduciary trust. The two most common allegations, asserted in 52% of cases, are inaccurate earnings guidance and improper accounting.


Despite the dominance of the materials industry in the Australian economy, suits against mining or other companies represent only 14% of all cases filed. Actions brought against issuers in the diversified financial, insurance and real estate industries account for slightly more than half of all filings.


Because so many of the securities lawsuits have been filed in recent years, only a small number of all suits have been resolved. Of the 12 that were resolved as of December 2009, eight were settled, although all five of the resolved cases that were filed after 2003 were settled. The NERA report suggests that the litigation funding arrangements may have contributed to this trend toward negotiated resolutions, as the litigation funders are likely to "promote the selection and subsequent filing of actions that are stronger and for which a greater proportion of potential class members have signed a funding agreement."


Though Australian securities class action lawsuit filings have increased in recent years, they are many fewer securities lawsuit filed there than in the United States even allowing for the differences in size of the two countries’ economies. The NERA report comments that the class action filing levels in the Australia are "broadly similar to the level seen in Canada, once adjusted for the respective size of each economy."


The report concludes with the observation about Australian securities class action lawsuits that "with a number of recent common law developments having resolved many areas of uncertainty, it is likely that the rate of growth of filings evident since 2004 wil continue into the future."


NERA is of course well known for its periodic studies of U.S. securities class action lawsuits. Their new study of Australian class action lawsuits is the third in a series of studies concerning securities class action lawsuit litigation outside the U.S., following on its studies concerning securities litigation in Canada (refer here) and Japan (refer here).


More About the Schwab YieldPlus Securities Class Action Lawsuit Settlement: In an earlier post (here), I reviewed the $200 million settlement in the Schwab YieldPlus subprime related securities class action lawsuit. As noted at the time, the settlement did not resolved the related state law claims that the plaintiffs had filed.


On May 5, 2010, the Charles Schwab Company announced (here) that it had resolved the remaining state law claims as well, in exchange for an agreement to pay an additional $35 million, brining the total value of the Schwab YieldPlus settlement to $235 million. I have adjusted my table of subprime-related securities lawsuit case resolutions accordingly.


Farewell Ernie Harwell: Everyone here at The D&O Diary was saddened by the news earlier this week of the death of Hall of Fame baseball announcer for the Detroit Tigers, Ernie Harwell. One of my fondest memories from my three years at University of Michigan Law School is of listening to radio broadcasts of Tiger games, and of Harwell’s friendly, welcoming voice bringing the games alive. Harwell is perhaps better known for his signature home run calls ("That one is long gone!), but I will always remember the way he began games by saying "Its another great day for Tiger baseball." It was always a great day for Tiger baseball when Harwell was in the booth.


Ernie, we will miss you.