Tuesday, January 28, 2014
Last week, after a post here, I received a call from a Charleston (WV) reporter seeking some background on veil piercing as it relates to the company (Freedom Industries) linked to a chemical spill that left 300,000 people without clean drinking water. That conversation led to a rather long article, as newspapers go, on the concepts of veil piercing in West Virginia. The article did a rather good job of relaying the basics (with a few nits), and I hope it at least informs people a little bit about the process to follow on that front.
The article does reflect a little confusion over what I was trying to communicate about personal liability for the president of Freedom Industries. West Virginia law provides: (b)“Unless otherwise provided in the articles of incorporation, a shareholder of a corporation is not personally liable for the acts or debts of the corporation except that he may become personally liable by reason of his own acts or conduct.” W. Va. Code, § 31D-6-622 (emphasis added). I was trying (and I take responsibility for any lack of clarity) to reflect my view that it was conceptually possible that the company president could be found personally liable for the harm if there were activities undertaken in his personal (and not corporate) capacity, but that based on the facts currently available, that seemed unlikely to me.
West Virginia courts have long reinforced the separate nature of the corporation and the shareholder. Consistent with prevailing views, the state recognizes each corporation as a distinct, individual entity that is separate and distinct from other corporations and from their respective shareholders. “The law presumes that two separately incorporated businesses are separate entities and that corporations are separate from their shareholders.” S. Elec. Supply Co. v. Raleigh County Nat. Bank., 173 W. Va. 780, 788, 320 S.E.2d 515, 523 (1984). In a proper case, courts will disregard the entity form—pierce the limited liability veil—where necessary to prevent injustice; however, courts take seriously this separate nature of corporations and shareholders, and “the corporate form will never be disregarded lightly.” Laya v. Erin Homes, Inc., 177 W. Va. 343, 347, 352 S.E.2d 93, 97 (1986) (quoting S. States Coop., Inc. v. Dailey, 167 W.Va. 920, 930, 280 S.E.2d 821, 827 (1981)); see also S. Elec. Supply Co. v. Raleigh County Nat. Bank., 173 W. Va. 780, 787, 320 S.E.2d 515, 522 (1984) (“The [veil piercing] doctrine is complicated, and it is applied gingerly.”). Thus, while veil piercing is not impossible, it is a significant hurdle.
I mentioned in a prior post that I thought enterprise liability (essentially collapsing various limited liability entities into one) was a more likely possible remedy for unpaid losses, though again it is by no means a given. Much more information about how the various entities involved in the whole situation operated and interacted with one another will need to be discovered before the real likelihood of such an outcome can be reasonably predicted.
Regardless of how that turns out, though, there is another issue worth noting, and that is the lack of government oversight. The classic case on veil piercing and enterprise liability, Walkovszky v. Carlton, explained that complaints about the inadequacy of corporate insurance and others assets are not a problem for the courts to solve. That court explained:
if the insurance coverage required by statute “is inadequate for the protection of the public, the remedy lies not with the courts but with the Legislature.” It may very well be sound policy to require that certain corporations must take out liability insurance which will afford adequate compensation to their potential tort victims. However, the responsibility for imposing conditions on the privilege of incorporation has been committed by the Constitution to the Legislature (N. Y. Const., art. X, §1) and it may not be fairly implied, from any statute, that the Legislature intended, without the slightest discussion or debate, to require of . . . [such] corporations that they carry . . . liability insurance over and above that mandated by [law].” Walkovszky v. Carlton, 18 N.Y.2d 414, 419-420(N.Y. 1966) (citations omitted).
I don’t know if a court will pierce the veil or apply an enterprise liability theory to expand the available assets for victims of the chemical spill. There is a lot to be determined before we’ll see an outcome. Still, it needs to be clear that where a company acts within the parameters of its grant of limited liability, seeking additional compensation from others after the fact is improper. (Again, whether the companies involved acted appropriately is an open question.)
If we’re uncomfortable with the cap on recovery for harms such as this, then randomly, haphazardly, and retroactively eliminating a state grant of limited liability protection is not the proper response. There are other ways to help protect the public, such as proper permitting, oversight and enforcement at chemical storage sites, and increased insurance and/or bonding requirements. State and federal legislatures should be discussing such options right now, and at least some discussions are occuring. It is, though, disheartening to read that even while discussing stronger standards for chemical storage tank operators, the West Virginia Senate Natural Resources Committee also voted to reduce water quality standards for aluminum in state water.