Directors and Officers Liability: Bleak Days For Directors and Officers

In a June 18th webinar sponsored by Zurich Financial Services in London, a forum was held to discuss director and officer liability exposures.

These are bleak days for corporate directors and officers.

In 2008 there were over 150,000 insolvencies in Western Europe alone. In the first quarter of 2009, the United States had over 5,000 corporate insolvencies. Mario Vitale, CEO of Zurich’s Global Corporate Division, predicts over 62,000 American corporate insolvencies for 2009, an increase of over 56% from the previous year. And the bankruptcies are not limited to the financial sector. They are widely spread over every type of business.

Vitale asserts that there is a direct relationship between corporate insolvencies and lawsuits filed against corporate directors and officers. In one American court jurisdiction alone, considering all the public company bankruptcies filed in 2008, 77% had a class action lawsuit filed against them.

One of the other daunting challenges to today’s corporate officer or director are the massive changes that have occurred in securities law. The Securities and Exchange Commission is holding officers criminally responsible for what they say regarding the financial health of their companies, including the information in their annual reports and financial statements.

Today’s economic uncertainties are dangerous for corporations. They must consider:

-Whether their line of credit is secure
-whether their bank, who issues the line of credit, is financially healthy
-the financial health of the companies in their supply chain
-the financial health of their customers. Can they pay their invoices?

So, for public corporations seeking investors, what can they tell prospective investors about the financial health of their company when the future cannot be accurately forecasted in any substantive way?

What you can be absolutely certain about is when there is a corporate insolvency, the shareholders, hedge funds and the “vulture funds” will be picking the bones of the company’s financial documents to find the slightest half-truth for their basis for lawsuits.

Francis Kean, attorney at partner at the UK firm Barlow Lyde & Gilbert, boldly stated that the worst event “by a country mile” that could happen to a director or officer is the insolvency of the company upon whose board they serve. A director’s responsibility is to the company he serves and helps to control. However, in a bankruptcy, the Court takes control. It must not only settle financial claims against the company, but analyze the reasons for the insolvency, including whether or not directors can be found liable.

The other wild card is that the potential claim can be “sold” to the highest bidder because the claim can be perceived as an asset against the directors.

German corporate securities law stipulates that once a company’s directors decide that the company should be liquidated, the directors only have 21 calendar days to place the company into insolvency. Failure to meet this deadline can result in criminal charges against the directors with a maximum jail term of three years.

Anything like that here in the United States? Are you sure?

Why would anyone choose to be a corporate director in this sort of business and regulatory climate?

So, how do directors and officers of corporations protect their own assets in this hostile business environment? The corporate director or officer cannot be certain that the company they serve will be there to defend and indemnify them in case of insolvency and subsequent legal challenges.

Can the director simply resign from the board? Not really. The director must eventually prove that he did everything humanly possible to minimize the losses for the creditors. Anything short of that effort could be considered a claim against the director.

The director must plan ahead, and prepare for the worst.

First, know your liabilities. Know who might be a plaintiff and the reasons they might file a lawsuit against you.

Second, buy a Directors and Officers (D&O) Liability insurance policy at the time you are either a director or officer. But buy the coverage while your company is still solvent. Buy from an insurance company that also has a strong balance sheet, and is going to be there when you need the protection.

Here is a new complication for directors, though. Some insurers are coming out with Insolvency Exclusions. Some are broadly worded, some narrowly worded. Be very careful of the wording of your policy.

Also be aware that most of these policies are “Claims Made” policies, which means that the trigger event must have happened within the policy period. But, is the bankruptcy the triggering event, or is the claim date the trigger? The claim may be made months after the bankruptcy filing and by that time, the policy may have expired. This question will be determined in the courts.

I recommend carrying your D&O policy for a couple years after you leave the Board of any company. I also recommend high policy limits.

Protect your assets with Directors and Officers Liability insurance.

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