Director and Officer Liability

On my beat here at The D&O Diary, I cover the liabilities of corporate directors and officers. One objection I frequently hear is that I focus too much public companies and not enough on private companies. The reason I write about public company issues more than private company concerns is that the public company world usually is more eventful. However, every now and then, something comes up involving a privately-held company that reminds all of us that plenty happens in the private company D&O world, too. The most recent example is the shareholder derivative and class action lawsuit filed last week against executives of the electronic cigarette company, Juul Labs. As discussed below, this new lawsuit highlights the exposures that private company directors and officers can face and underscores the fact that even private companies can get hit with shareholder class action lawsuits.
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The liability environment for directors and officers is always in a state of change, but 2019 was a particularly eventful year in the D&O liability arena, with important consequences for the D&O insurance marketplace. The past year’s many developments have significant implications for what may lie ahead in 2020 – and possibly for years to come, as well.  I have set out below the Top Ten D&O Stories of 2019, with a focus on the future implications.
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Samantha Wu

In prior posts, I have noted the series of U.S. securities class action lawsuits that have been filed recently against publicly traded companies in the cannabis business, including several Canadian companies. In the following guest post, Samantha Wu of the Bersenas Jacobsen Chouest Thomson Blackburn law firm in Toronto provides an overview of the unique exposures that directors and officers of Canadian cannabis companies face. A version of this article previously was published on the law firm’s website (here). I would like to thank Sam for allowing me to publish her article as a guest post on this site. I welcome guest post submissions from responsible authors on topics of interest to this blog’s readers. Please contact me directly if you would like to submit a guest post. Here is Sam’s article.
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Liam Fitzpatrick

It is no secret that the current political environment is complicated – in the U.S., in the U.K., and around the world. The fraught political climate has important implications for companies and their directors and officers. In the following guest post, Liam Fitzpatrick takes a look at the repercussions for U.K. companies arising out of the present political circumstances there. Liam is Client Services Director at Mactavish. A version of this article  was published prior to the recent U.K. elections on the MacTavish website (here). I would like to thank Liam for allowing me to publish his article as a guest post on this site. I welcome guest post submissions from responsible authors on topics of interest to this blog’s readers. Please contact me directly if you would like to submit a guest post. Here is Liam’s article.
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Earlier this year, in Marchand v. Barnhill, the Delaware Supreme Court underscored that boards that fail to establish oversight procedures for their company’s mission critical functions can be held liable for breach of their Caremark duties. In an October 1, 2019 decision in the Clovis Oncology Derivative Litigation, the Delaware Chancery Court provided further perspective on directors’ potential liability for breaches of the duty of oversight. The Chancery court held, citing Marchand,  that boards not only must be able to show that they have made good faith efforts to implement an oversight system, but that also that they monitor the system – particularly when a company operates in a highly regulated industry.  The Chancery Court’s October 1, 2019 decision in the Clovis Oncology Derivative Litigation can be found here.
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Under the Delaware Chancery Court decision in the Caremark case, directors can be liable for failures in their oversight duties – that is, their duties to monitor the company and its functions. Lawsuits alleging a violation of the duty of oversight are notoriously challenging for plaintiffs. However, in the recent Marchand v. Barnhill case, the Delaware Supreme Court reversed the Chancery Court’s dismissal of a Caremark liability case and allowed the case to proceed against the board of an ice cream manufacturer that experienced a deadly listeria outbreak. Caremark liability cases remain difficult to plead and prove, but the Marchand decision nevertheless has important implications for director liability for breaches of their duty of oversight.
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The directors of companies have roles, responsibilities and potential liabilities. But who can be held liable as a director? That was the question that the Third Circuit recently answered in an interesting ruling in which the appellate court determined that board observers could not be held liable as directors or director equivalents under Section 11 for alleged registration misstatement misrepresentations. The decision raises some interesting considerations when it comes to directors and their roles. The Third Circuit’s July 23, 2019 decision can be found here.
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Billionaire Sam Zell and other former executives of the bankrupt Tribune Company have reached a $200 million deal to settle the bankruptcy trustee’s adversarial claims against them arising out of the disastrous 2007 leveraged buyout (LBO) of the company. According to press reports about the settlement, the $200 million settlement amount will “significantly” exceed the company’s remaining D&O insurance; the settlement amount in excess of the remaining insurance is to be split among the various individual defendants.  The settlement is subject to bankruptcy court approval. The trustee’s May 31, 2019 motion for court approval of the settlement can be found here. Jonathan Stempel’s June 12, 2019 Reuters article about the settlement can be found here.
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