Shareholder Liability – Prerequisites for Piercing the Corporate Veil
Teil unserer Projekte mit dem Ziel der Risikominimierung betreffend Produkthaftung und U.S. Geschäftstätigkeit und Reduzierung der Gefahr eines Rückgriffs auf die deutsche Muttergesellschaft oder persönliche Gesellschafter ist unter anderem die Auseinandersetzung mit dem Institut des Haftungsdurchgriffs nach U.S. Recht, dem sogenannten piercing the corporate veil. Nachfolgend haben wir für Sie einmal die Voraussetzung eines nach U.S. Recht möglichen Haftungsdurchgriffes – aufgrund der im U.S. Recht und Rechtsprechung verankerten Voraussetzungen der Einfachheit halber in englisch - dargestellt. Darüber hinaus muss schon bei Gründung oder im unmittelbaren Nachlauf durch entsprechende Vertragsgestaltung das Risiko zusätzlich reduziert werden.
Although a shareholder of a corporation is generally not liable for the obligations of the corporation, under certain circumstances courts will disregard the existence of the corporation and impose personal liability on shareholders for obligations of the corporation arising either in tort or contract. Courts call this “piercing the corporate veil.”
The willingness of courts to disregard the corporation varies from state to state. The rationale often employed by the courts for piercing the corporate veil is that the corporation has been managed in ways that ignore, or are inconsistent with, the concept of the corporation as a separate entity.
Historically, the doctrine of piercing the corporate veil has only been used successfully against shareholders of closely held corporations. Consequently, directors of closely held corporations should be aware of the possible consequences to shareholders of lax management practices and should seek to avoid conditions that might expose shareholders to personal liability. A number of important factors have been cited as justification for piercing the corporate veil in those cases that have resulted in shareholder liability:
• Inadequate capitalization from inception. One of the reasons frequently cited by courts for piercing the corporate veil is that the corporation had never received adequate capital to operate the business and provide for the foreseeable obligations and risks inherent in the business. In a tort case, for example, where the plaintiff is injured in an accident involving a corporate vehicle and the corporation does not have adequate insurance coverage, undercapitalization from inception might be sufficient in itself to justify piercing.
• Fraud or misrepresentation. In a contract case, where the plaintiff has voluntarily chosen to enter into the contract with the corporation, courts typically require that some element of deception or inequity be involved to justify piercing the veil. Misrepresenting the finances of the corporation or otherwise misleading the plaintiff could supply the necessary element.
• Commingling corporate and shareholder assets; siphoning off profits. Courts have also cited indiscriminate use of corporate funds or other assets for personal, non-business purposes, or withdrawing funds needed for corporate operations, as factors in support of piercing.
• Inattention to corporate formalities. Failure to observe corporate formalities is one of the most frequently cited factors justifying disregard of the corporate entity. Failure to adopt bylaws, hold annual meetings and keep minutes and records are factors that militate in favor of piercing.