Message from the Supreme Court: do your due diligence

Yesterday’s Supreme Court decision in BPE Solicitors v Hughes-Holland [2017] UKSC 21 looks like a dry-as-dust decision on the measure of damages in professional negligence cases. It is more important than that, however.

A financier, G, was negligently misinformed by his solicitor about a project he was thinking of financing. To cut a long story short, G was led to believe he was bankrolling the carrying out of a property development, while in fact he was merely refinancing the property owner’s own crippling indebtedness, leaving no assets left over to actually do the work. Having taken the loan the borrower went bust; the property was sold for a song, and G lost his hard-earned cash.

Pretty obviously, had G not been misled he would have run a mile and invested his funds elsewhere, where they would still have been available to him. There was however a complication: quite apart from any misinformation by his lawyers, the project he invested in was a complete dud from beginning to end. In other words, even if what his solicitors told him had been entirely true and he had been financing the actual works, he would still have been pouring his money down the drain, and he would still have lost out.

Upholding the Court of Appeal, Lord Sumption (speaking for the court) decided that G recovered nothing. Even though he would not have made the disastrous investment he did but for his solicitors’ blunder, his solicitors’ duty did not extend to protecting him from garden variety commercial misfortune. It followed that (contrary to a number of earlier authorities) the so-called SAAMCO cap (see South Australia Asset Management Corpn v York Montague Ltd [1997] AC 191) applied to reduce recovery to nil.

The significance of this decision to businesses generally, from lenders of money to buyers of ships or businesses, is that it removes what was once quite a comforting safety-net. Prior to BPE, if professional advisers negligently failed to tell a client facts indicating that some investment he was seeking to make was entirely unacceptable or unviable, the client could recover his entire (foreseeable) loss, even if other commercial conditions indicated that the deal was a disaster and he would have lost out anyway regardless of the facts he was not told about. Quite rightly, the Supreme Court has now closed off this means of palming off one’s own financial misjudgment on somebody else’s professional indemnity insurers. As the title says: do your due diligence. If you don’t, from now on you’re on your own.

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