pnBlawg

the professional negligence blog

A collaboration between Rebmark Legal Solutions and 1 Chancery Lane

Is an extension to the SAAMCO principle on the horizon?

Background Property valuation is seldom an exact science; it involves the consideration of both present factors and future contingencies.  With the property crashes of the last two decades came a wealth of litigation considering both the scope of the duty of care owed by valuers to lenders and the extent to which losses caused by negligent valuations are recoverable. One such case which those in the professional negligence field will be familiar is South Australian Asset Management Corporation v. York Montague Ltd [1996] UKHL 10. The House of Lords held, inter alia, that valuers who provide negligent valuations are only liable for the loss caused by the negligent information itself and not for any extraneous events (in the legal sphere this became known as the SAAMCO principle). Subsequent cases sought to distinguish its application, particularly where the duty was to advise rather than to inform and, earlier this month, the principle was again brought to the fore in an interesting judgment delivered in Edward Astle & Ors v CBRE Ltd and others [2015] EWHC 3189 (Ch). The case involved a Government scheme which consisted of both a trust and a partnership. The trust held freehold property and the partnership had an interest in the acquisition and development of five development sites. The Royal Bank of Scotland (“RBS”) sought expert valuations for loan security purposes and approached the Defendant companies (ERL and CBRE) in separate capacities. CBRE advised on the value of the units and freehold property. The units and loan notes were then procured and issued by ERL (the owner of the partnership and trustee company) in an information memorandum (“IM”). The IM contained a section entitled “Investment Overview” and sought to raise £37, 500,000, £25, 775, 000 of which was subsequently invested by the Claimants. Unfortunately, there was a collapse in commercial property values in 2008 and a desktop valuation carried out by CBRE noted a sharp decline in the aggregate value of the freehold and units. As such, the development centres were cancelled in 2010 and the freehold was sold. This meant that the partnership defaulted on its debt and the combined value of the properties was such that the Claimants lost all that they had invested. The Claimants brought a claim against the Defendants alleging that the valuations had been materially overstated and that their losses were attributable to the alleged overvaluation in the IM. The Defendant applied for summary judgment against the Claimants relying on the SAAMCO principle, namely that this was a case of duty to inform and therefore a claim for losses unconnected with the alleged overvaluation could not be pursued. Judgment Judge William Tower QC, sitting as High Court judge, delivered judgment on 5 November 2015. Despite accepting that the duty of the investors in this case was a duty to inform rather than to advise he nonetheless went on to hold that the Claimant had a real prospect of establishing that the loss they had suffered was attributable, at least in part, to the alleged inadequacies in the IM. In summary, the arguments presented on both sides were as follows. The Defendant argued that even if the IM has been entirely accurate, the Claimants would still have lost the totality of their investments because the cause of the loss was only attributable to the following events: commercial property values having collapsed, the project having been abandoned and the partnership refinancing having failed. The Claimants argued that whilst the SAAMCO principle applied in relation to the claims against CBRE, it did not apply to the claim against ERL.  The reason purported was that the SAAMCO case could be distinguished on its facts based on the following. Firstly, that the scope of the duty of care was different. There was no equivalence between ERL’s role and that of a valuer, SAAMCO related to a standard mortgage lender claiming against a negligent valuer whereas, in the present case, investors had acquired units or loan notes on the basis of a prospectus. In this sense ERL was not providing dispassionate objective advice as a valuer but rather it was the promoter of both a valuation and more nuanced information relating to commercial prospects. As such, ERL was also the recipient of a wide range of other benefits which were far removed from a standard fee for the provision of valuation service type scenario. Secondly, the starting point for discerning loss was different. Unlike SAAMCO, it was submitted that in the present case the court was not required to carry out a speculative analysis of what the valuation would have been had the information been accurate. Instead, it was required to assess the damages at the amount advanced less the amount recovered. The Claimant’s reasoning was that they had suffered an immediate measurable loss at the time of their investment because the units and loan notes (the asset in which they had invested) were in fact worth less than they were represented to be and that since they recovered nothing they were entitled to the full amount advanced.   Judge Tower reviewed the relevant authorities and asserted that the exercise which the court is required to carry out when considering these cases is a two-stage process: Firstly, the court must ascertain the basic loss i.e what loss did in fact occur. Secondly, the court is required to assess the maximum amount of the loss capable of falling within the duty of care, which it does by identifying the consequences which are attributable to that which made the act wrongful. Siding with the Claimants, Judge Tower agreed that it was capable of being argued at trial that the Claimants made an investment which was worthless and which they would not have made if they had been informed as to the true value of the investment. Following this, even though ERL had no duty to advise, as an information-provider on an investment rather than a lending decision, it was arguable that ERL knew that the information would be used by the Claimants and their own advisers to decide on the viability of the transaction.  Therefore the maximum loss was, at least in part, attributable to the alleged overvaluation. Comment Ultimately, this was a summary judgment application. The judge was not permitted to have a mini-trial of the issues and the threshold the Claimant had to surmount to prove that the case had a real prospect of success was a low one. It is also important to note that the judge’s decision was caveated. On the evidence before him Judge Tower decided it was quite likely that the Claimants would not be able to prove at trial that an overvaluation caused anything like as much loss as much that alleged and that a trial judge may find that his two-stage formulation is not appropriate. For all these reasons, practitioners cannot infer too much at this stage as to a possible extension of the SAAMCO principle. Nevertheless, the judgment does foreshadow a trial on the substantive issues which will raise poignant questions as to the scope of SAAMCO and one which will have potentially wide-ranging implications for practitioners (as well as valuers/investors). Most notably the door may be opened in similar cases to a third category of duty which carries a different measure of loss, one that sits between the duty to inform and the duty to advise where the tortfeasor is aware than the information will be used to decide the viability of a transactions. Looking ahead, for practitioners this could mean that the SAAMCO principle will no longer be a ‘carte blanche’ in valuation cases where the duty to inform arises and that investment contracts will need to be subjected to meticulous scrutiny. For those practising in this field, the forthcoming judgment will certainly be one to watch.    

No dual test for remoteness, says the Court of Appeal

The test for remoteness in tort is damage that is reasonably foreseeable. However the test for remoteness in contract is damage that ought to be in the reasonable contemplation of the parties. There are differences between the two. Damage can be reasonably foreseeable (in which case it satisfies the remoteness test in tort) but also highly unusual or unlikely, such as a particularly lucrative contract (in which case it does not satisfy the remoteness test in contract). So where there are two concurrent causes of action, such when a professional is sued, which test should be applied to the damages claimed?   In Wellesley Partners LLP v Withers LLP [2015] EWCA Civ 1146 a three-judge Court of Appeal has held that, where the claimant has concurrent causes of action in both negligence and breach of contract against the defendant, it is the more restrictive contractual test for remoteness that will apply to any losses.     The facts concerned negligence in the drafting of a partnership agreement. The Defendant was supposed to draw up the agreement to provide for the investors’ capital to be locked in to the partnership for at least 42 months, to give the partnership time to work. In fact the agreement provided that investors could withdraw capital at any time during the first 42 months. An important investor withdrew a large sum of money during that time. The claim was that but for the negligence that allowed the investor to withdraw capital, there would have been enough money to enable the partnership to open a New York trading office which would have generated lucrative profits. At first instance, Nugee J held that the losses claimed were not recoverable under the contractual test for remoteness but were recoverable under the more generous tortious test, and that the Claimant was entitled to choose which test to apply when bringing the claim. Accordingly the claim succeeded. The Court of Appeal upheld the judgment but on different grounds. It held that when there are concurrent causes of action in contract and in tort, the contractual test for remoteness applies and the tortious test does not. However it also found that on the facts, the losses claimed ought to have been within the reasonable contemplation of the parties and so were recoverable notwithstanding that the more generous test of remoteness did not apply. The Court recognised that the decision might throw up some anomalies. It may give a client who receives free legal advice from a solicitor (who therefore does not have a contract with the solicitor) a more generous right to damages than someone who does have a contract. It may also mean that a client who sues a solicitor and a barrister for negligence may have a more generous claim against the barrister (with whom he does not have a contract) than he does against the solicitor (with whom he does have a contract). Roth J stated that he imagined that in such a situation, the contractual test for remoteness would apply but that this would have to be left to another case to be decided. In any event the case is a welcome clarification of the law.            

Schubert Murphy v The Law Society

In Schubert Murphy v The Law Society [2015] P.N.L.R. 15 (QBD), Mitting J refused to strike out a claim by solicitors who alleged that it had suffered loss during a conveyancing transaction as a result of relying upon misinformation on the Law Society’s "Find a Solicitor" website. Someone calling themselves John Dobbs submitted and obtained a practising certificate to operate as a sole practitioner under the trading name of Acorn Solicitors. A Mr Khristofi decided to buy a house and instructed Schubert Murphy. The vendor was represented by Acorn Solicitors. Schubert Murphy checked the Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA) and noted Acorn Solicitors were regulated. The Law Society’s practice note on mortgage fraud (dated 15 April 2009) urged solicitors as a matter of good practice to check their directory "Find a Solicitor" or the directory of Licensed Conveyancers if they were dealing with a firm they were unfamiliar with. During the conveyancing Acorn Solicitors gave the standard undertaking to discharge the existing mortgage out of the purchase monies paid by Mr Khristofi. Mr Khristofi moved into the house to discover the £735,000 purchase price had not been used to discharge the mortgage; Acorn Solicitors were a sham and the undertaking worthless. Mr Khristofi faced eviction proceedings by Lloyds Bank who held a first charge over the property. Mr Khristofi brought proceedings against Schubert Murphy (for negligence) which was settled. Schubert Murphy then brought proceedings against the Law Society for breach of statutory duty and/or negligent misstatement. The Law Society sought to strike out the claim on the basis it did not owe Schubert Murphy a duty of care. Mitting J refused to strike out the claim and held the matter should go to trial. The existence or not of a duty of care vested in the SRA in respect of its duties under ss. 10(1) and 10A of the Solicitors Act 1971 depended on an analysis of general factors and specific factors. Having regard to issues concerning the protection of the public a strike out was not appropriate as in theory if the Law Society was correct it called into question the security of current conveyancing practice. Furthermore that could be a factor in recognising the existence of a duty of care which coincided with the Law Society’s statutory duties when considering applications for the entry onto the Roll of Solicitors and their registration. This was because the Law Society, by encouraging members of the public to rely on its published information about who is a solicitor could be shocked to discover they had no route for recompense against a representative and regulatory body that held out a person as a solicitor on its website when in fact they were not. It is not clear from the judgment whether the Law Society’s website for its "Find a Solicitor" contained an appropriately worded disclaimer in 2010 when the fraudulent transaction occurred. It does now and includes the wording "Find a Solicitor is not intended to be the way in which the Law Society fulfils its statutory duties under the Solicitors Act 1974 to keep an official register of all solicitors available for inspection by the public" and goes on to advise viewers to inspect the official register. The Law Society contended that a body in its position and exercising a statutory duty owed no duty of care to those who may be injured economically by carelessness (relying on Yuen Kun-Yeu v Attorney General of Hong Kong [1988] A.C. 175). Mitten J held reliance on the case noted above was of little assistance as it did not establish that in no circumstances could a regulator not be responsible for economic loss. Further it was a not case where the Law Society made a representation or failed to exercise due care in an assessment of honesty or competence of "John Dobs", but instead it just entered his name on the Roll and register him as entitled to practise when if they had exercised proper care they would not have done so. Mitten J also held that in negligence claims generally there was no requirement that the act of carelessness giving rise to the claim must coincide temporally with the occurrence of harm. Furthermore in a representation case it did not matter the alleged carelessness happened at a time when the person to whom the representation was made was not personally in the contemplation of the defendant. Mitten J was concerned about the possible impact on conveyancing practise as in cases where solicitors are involved negligence can be rectified by a payment from the Solicitors Compensation Fund. However counsel for the Law Society submitted only where a solicitor gives an undertaking that fails will compensation be paid as there is no remit or obligation to make payments for failed undertakings given by people posing as a solicitor. So how does a member of the public or a solicitor obtain independent verification of the information on the "Find a Solicitor" website? The official register could be inspected and the Law Society telephoned. However the SRA will not necessarily release information about a person’s route to entry on the Roll on the basis of data protection principles. Should such a body like the Law Society be allowed to comprehensively disclaim responsibility for information when it urges the public to check the information it publishes and urges solicitors, as a matter of good practice, to also check? J Mitting gave judgment on 17 December 2014-does anyone know what is happening with this case?                

Newcastle International Airport Ltd v Eversheds LLP - making sense of legalese

When faced with a complex legal document (the new procedural rules, being one example), it is often tempting to skim read and shrug off any incomprehensible sections, in the hope that they are not important. Newcastle International Airport Limited v Eversheds LLP ([2013] EWCA Civ 1514) demonstrates why it pays to press ahead – in a darkened room, with a wet towel over your head if needs be. In this case, Eversheds was instructed to draft new service contracts for executive directors by the executives themselves. It was only when one of the executives died that the Airport realised the new contract entitled his estate to bonuses totalling £8m. Described in the Newcastle press as a ‘bonanza’, the Court of Appeal stated that when this issue came to light, it understandably caused “considerable consternation”. In order to recoup part of the payment, the Airport pursued a professional negligence claim against Eversheds. The Airport’s claim was dismissed at first instance. On appeal, the Court of Appeal found that the new contracts should have been accompanied by a written explanation to the Airport, in user-friendly language, of their terms and effect. Thereby ensuring that Eversheds’ client – the Airport – was provided with advice directly, and not merely through the intermediary of its executives, whose interests conflicted with that of the Airport. However, the Court held that it was unlikely that the chair of the company's remuneration committee would have read the memorandum, even if it had been provided. Consequently, the claim failed on causation grounds. Lessons Learnt Newcastle International Airport Limited v Eversheds LLP provides a number of salutary lessons. First, to non-lawyers it shows the importance of reading key legal documents and of seeking assistance in understanding their contents. To lawyers, it reminds us to draft documents in plain English, where possible. It also demonstrates how crucial it is to assess causation in light of what the witnesses’ actual conduct indicates about their likely hypothetical behaviour. In this claim, the courts’ view on causation relied heavily on a litany of documents, which the remuneration committee’s chair had not read or not read adequately.

Conflicting medical evidence: solicitors' duties in CICA claims

In Boyle v Thompsons Solicitors [2012] EWHC 36 (QB) Mr Justice Coulson considered the scope of a solicitor’s duty in resolving conflicts of expert medical evidence. The claimant (“Mrs B”) claimed damages from the defendant solicitors (“the Solicitors”) for their allegedly negligent conduct of her compensation claim to the Criminal Injuries Compensation Authority (“CICA”).   The CICA claim related to injuries sustained as a result of an assault on Mrs B by her former partner in November 2001. Mrs B applied to the CICA for compensation and in 2003 it made a final award of £5,150. This figure proved to be unacceptable to Mrs B and she instructed the Solicitors to lodge an appeal on her behalf. By the time of the appeal hearing in 2006, Mrs B had taken early retirement on medical grounds. The principal issues in the appeal became the extent to which her PTSD was permanent (which meant she could never work again) and whether the PTSD was solely due to the November 2001 assault.   The appeal was not straightforward because the medical evidence was contradictory. There was evidence from Dr T, Mrs B’s treating psychiatrist, to the effect that the PTSD was permanent and was solely caused by the November 2001 assault. However there was also evidence from an independent psychologist, M suggesting that the PTSD was not permanent and could not be solely attributed to the assault. Furthermore Mrs B had been the victim of a number of assaults, of which only the November 2001 passed the CICA threshold test and thus qualified for compensation. In addition Mrs B had a history of depression.   The CICA Panel rejected Mrs B’s appeal, deciding (amongst other matters) that the cause of Mrs B’s PTSD was multi-factorial, that the PTSD was not permanent and that it was not the cause of her retirement.     Mrs B sued the Solicitors. Notwithstanding that the Solicitors had asked M, the psychologist, to reconsider her opinions in the light of Dr T’s views, Mrs B argued in effect that they should have made further approaches to M, the psychologist, in an attempt to “beef up” her evidence in relation to the permanent nature of the PTSD and its causation.   In finding that the solicitors were not negligent, Mr Justice Coulson noted an important feature of the CICA scheme, namely that applicants were required to disclose all medical reports obtained. He considered that the solicitors had acted appropriately in asking M to reconsider her views in the light of Dr T’s evidence. It was an unrealistic criticism of the solicitors that they should have done something more about the difference in views between M and Dr T. It was not for the solicitors to “manipulate the evidence of the independent expert, particularly in a CICA claim..” where all reports had to be disclosed to the Panel. In the circumstances the solicitors did all that they reasonably could and Mrs B’s claim was dismissed.   As a postscript, the judgment also contains an useful analysis of quantum, where the underlying action concerns a CICA claim.      

Mortgage valuations and reliance

More on Phimister v DM Hall LLP [2012] CSOH 169 (see earlier posting), which concerned a valuation of a residential property in Scotland. The Claimant’s criticism is that the Defendant ought to have checked the Property’s acreage and, had he done so, he would have realised that it was 0.46 acres smaller. Lord Glennie dismissed the claim on the primary basis that the Defendant did not owe any duty to check as alleged (see earlier posting). However, he rejected the claim on a number of alternative bases including causation. Having found that the Defendant was unaware of the Claimant’s plans to develop the Property, he decided in terms that it was unreasonable for the Claimant to rely upon the report, which had valued the Property for residential purpose, when deciding whether to buy the Property’s purchase for development purposes. Thus, had the Claimant been able to establish any material loss, it would not have been caused by the Defendant’s tortious breach of duty. Further, since the Defendant was unaware of the Claimant’s development plans, any loss connected with the Claimant’s failure to redevelop the Property was too remote and thus irrecoverable in contract. Finally Lord Glennie considered the issue of contributory negligence. He agreed that the Claimant’s conduct was “unwise” or “shoddy”. Had he needed to make an award of damages, the judge would have found the Claimant contributorily negligent to the extent of 75% for proceeding to purchase the Property, with a view to its development, without first measuring it or obtaining a development appraisal.