Most serious investors in everything from ships to real estate to businesses act through the medium of ‘tame’ companies. They do this for very good reasons. However, the Supreme Court gave a salutary warning this morning that even the simplest structures of this kind can provide pitfalls for the unwary.
Slightly simplified, in Lowick Rose LLP (in liquidation) v Swynson Ltd  UKSC 32 what happened was this. A wealthy investor H used a wholly-owned special purpose vehicle S Ltd to make a loan of £15 million to EMS Ltd to enable EMS to buy MIA Inc. Due diligence, or rather a lack of it, was provided by accountants HMT, who failed to notice glaring problems with MIA. The trouble quickly surfaced. As a damage limitation exercise H caused S to lend a further £1.75m to EMSL in 2007 and £3m in 2008, H at the same time obtaining a large holding in EMS. Things went from bad to worse, and in 2008 more refinancing was necessary. H personally lent EMS some £19 million, most of which went to pay off EMS’s borrowings from S, with the rest being new money. To no avail: MIA collapsed, and with it the whole house of cards.
H and S sued HMT for losses of some £16 million. At this point an awkwardness arose. HMT was held on the facts to have owed no duty to H. As regards S it admitted negligence, but argued that in so far as S’s loans to EMS had been paid off (by H) the loss was H’s and not S’s. Reversing the Court of Appeal, the Supreme Court decided for HMT. S had indeed suffered no loss. The loan by H to EMS to pay off S was not an unconnected benefit, so as to be regarded as res inter alios acta. Nor could S invoke transferred loss and the rule in Dunlop v Lambert (1839) 2 Cl & F 626; nor yet could H use the doctrine of subrogation to keep the loan from S to EMS alive and claim in the name of S.
A nice windfall for HMT’s professional indemnity insurers, and an unnecessary one. Had H lent the money to S for S to use to refinance EMS, there would have been no problem; H, through S, would have been £16 million to the good. But he hadn’t done that, and that was an end of the matter. As we said above, when using corporate structures any failure to take care to guard your back can be very costly.
Solicitors also note: you are now on notice. Since this decision, unless you take great care in advising on refinancing deals, the SIF is likely to have some less-than-kind words for you too.