Thursday, January 24, 2013
For those of you paying attention to the back and forth related to the H-P/Autonomy acquisition, the question of the potential liability of advisors has popped up more than a couple of times. How could H-P's advisors (investment bankers, lawyers, and accountants) let slip by the alleged accounting fraud that caused H-P to write down more than $5 billion? Close on the heels of that question is whether the advisors should face any liability for not picking up on the fact that Autonomy might not be a good candidate for an acquisition.
Well, for a partial answer as to the liability exposure of M&A advisors when the transaction goes wrong look no further than Baker v. Goldman Sachs, just decided by a jury in federal district court in Boston. There, the founders with Goldman's assistance sold their company, Dragon Systems to Belgium-based Lernout & Hauspie for $580 million in L&H stock. Not long after the transaction closed, fraud at the acquirer was discovered and the acquirer quickly went bankrupt leaving Dragon stockholders holding worthless stock.
Having lost everything, including their tech company, founders Janet and Jim Baker sued Goldman for allegedly failing in its duties to them, their clients, when it brokered the deal. Here's the original complaint (Baker v Goldman) - filed in state court and then removed to federal district court. The jury heard the evidence and the arguments in this case and found that Goldman had not breached any duties to the Bakers.
If H-P is thinking about going after its advisors for its ill-fated Autonomy deal, it will have to be more successful than the Bakers were in convincing a jury that M&A advisors should bear liability for a deal gone wrong.