Piercing the Corporate Veil | Brian JM Quinn | November 15, 2013

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Piercing the Corporate Veil

Original Creator: Brian JM Quinn Current Version: Brian JM Quinn Show/Hide

Legal personality and limited liability are two critical features of the modern corporate structure. Although these two features are often described as different, they are in fact two sides of the same coin. The “coin” in this case is the principal of separateness. Legal personality means that the corporate entity stands on its own, independent of its stockholders, such that the debts and other liabilities of the stockholders of the corporation are not the debts or liabilities of the corporation.

Equally important, limited liability (the default rule, provided under 102(b)(6)) means that the debts and other liabilities of the corporation are the debts and liabilities of the corporation and not the stockholders. The separate life of the corporation and the power of limited liability are extremely powerful policy choices that have implications for third parties as well as for corporate decision-makers.

Businesses can and do fail. When they do, limited liability means that the costs of that failure will mostly be borne by third party creditors of the firm and not by the directors or the stockholders of the firm. This creates may create incentives for third parties to careful when dealing with corporations. But, it also creates incentives that improve the liquidity of capital markets and encourage corporate risk-taking.

“Piercing the corporate veil” is an equitable doctrine that is the exception to the rule. In extreme cases, courts may look through the protective barrier of limited liability and assign the corporation's liabilities to the stockholders. The following cases raise of the issues common in veil piercing cases.

Although the concept of corporate separateness is well understood at the state level, in recent years a series of First Amendment cases have provided the US Supreme Court the opportunity to give its own view on the traditional state law question of corporate separateness. Unlike state level courts, the US Supreme Court has taken a much more malleable view towards the doctrine of corporate separateness as that concept relates to the First Amendment.

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  1. 1 Show/Hide More Walkovszky v. Carlton
    Original Creator: Brian JM Quinn Current Version: Brian JM Quinn

    The default rule for the corporation is that stockholders face limited liability for the debts of the corporation. The liability of stockholders is limited to the capital contributed they to the corporation. For instance, if a stockholder contributes $100 in equity capital to the corporation (assume this represents all the equity capital available to the corporation), and if the corporation has $150 in debts, the corporation may be required to pay all of its equity capital (i.e. $100) to settle the corporation's debts. In most circumstances, stockholders will not be liable for the balance of the corporation's debt of $50. The liability of stockholders is thus limited to only their capital contributions.

    Although limited liability as described above is the default rule, in extreme cases courts may look through the corporate form, or “pierce the corporate veil”, and assign liability for corporate debts to stockholders.

    The following case is paradigmatic. The owner of the corporation has obviously established the corporations in question to limit their exposure to debts of each of the corporations the owner controls. In deciding whether the stockholder should receive the benefit of corporate limited liability, the court lays out a test to determine whether it should look through the veil of limited liability protection and find the shareholders liable for the debts of the corporation.

    If the corporation is a mere “alter ego” of the stockholders (e.g. if the corporation is operated without formality and for mere convenience of its stockholders), it is more likely, though not certain, that a court will look through the corporate form and assign corporate liabilities to stockholders in order to prevent a fraud or inequitable result.

  2. 2 Show/Hide More Kinney Shoe Corp. v. Polan
    Original Creator: Brian JM Quinn Current Version: Brian JM Quinn

    Courts have long recognized that a corporation is an entity, separate and distinct from its officers and stockholders, and the individual stockholders are not responsible for the debts of the corporation.

    In the following case, a Federal court lays out its approach to the question of whether a court should depart from the limited liability norm and “pierce the corporate veil” thus making stockholders liable for the debts of the corporation. The approach taken by the Federal court here differs only slightly from the approach to piercing taken by various state courts, including Walkovszky.

    Central to a court's inquiry will be whether the stockholders treated the corporation as a separate entity with respect for the formalities due to a separate entity such that a court should also respect the corporation's limited liability. 

    Although the court in this case provides us with a convenient “test” it is worth remembering that piercing the corporate veil is an equitable remedy, therefore courts can – at times – appear to be inconsistent in their application of these tests. Success will usually require highly idiosyncratic facts and very sympathetic plaintiffs. In the most general terms, piercing the corporate veil is never going to be a court's first instinct. 

  3. 3 Show/Hide More Fletcher v. Atex Inc.
    Original Creator: Brian JM Quinn Current Version: Brian JM Quinn

    A subsidiary corporation is a corporation whose shares are owned entirely (or mostly) by another corporation. As between parent corporations and their subsidiaries, the default rule of limited liability still applies. A parent corporation will not normally be held liable for the debts of its subsidiary corporations.

    In Fletcher, tort victims are asking the court to pierce the corporate veil of one of its defunct subsidiaries in order to make Kodak liable for the subsidiaries debts that resulted from an alleged product defect that caused repetitive stress disorders in customers.  

    The Fletcher court uses two different theories to test whether it should pierce the corporate veil and make Kodak, the sole stockholder of Atex, liable for the damages caused by Atex. The first theory is the same two prong test applied in other piercing the corporate veil cases. The second theory relies on more straightforward concepts of agency law. These theories are not necessarily mutually exclusive.

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