Directors Are Not Liable for the Torts of Employees Unless Personally Involved, but Should Still Keep a Close Watch Over What Corporate Officers are Doing
There are hundreds of new cases filed in Illinois courts every day, and many of those cases involve business disputes. At DiTommaso-Lubin, we pride ourselves on staying on top of new court filings so that we know of changes in the law as they happen. Our Waukegan business attorneys just found a decision rendered by the Appellate Court of Illinois that provides some useful information for our business clients.
Zahl v. Krupa is a dispute between investors in a fund allegedly run by a company and the directors of that company. Plaintiffs alleged that they were approached by Defendant Krupa, President of Jones & Brown Company, Inc., who solicited money to be invested in a fund only available to the officers and directors (and their family members) of the company. There were two agreements allegedly written on company letterhead that set out the terms of the investments, whereupon Plaintiffs would invest between $100,000 and $160,000 each and receive an 11.1% return guaranteed by Jones & Brown. Plaintiffs each allegedly signed an agreement with Defendant Krupa and gave him the funds requested. There was no other written documentation regarding the investments or the agreements. Plaintiffs allegedly never got the return on their investment nor did they get their money back.
Plaintiffs then filed suit against Krupa, the other officers of Jones & Brown, and the directors of the business. Plaintiffs sued for breach of contract, fraud, and negligent hiring, supervision, and retention. The breach of contract and fraud causes of action were reliant upon the alleged assertion that Defendant Krupa, in soliciting Plaintiffs, was acting as an agent or apparent agent of Jones & Brown. The remaining causes of action sought to hold Defendants liable for Defendant Krupa's deception because they knew or should have known that he was untrustworthy.
Through discovery, the depositions of several parties allegedly showed that Defendant Krupa never had actual authority to enter into the investment agreements because the directors neither signed nor authorize the agreements. Testimony also revealed that the investment agreements were allegedly outside the scope of Jones & Brown's normal business as a construction company, which showed that Krupa did not have apparent authority. As a result of these facts, Defendants successfully moved for summary judgment on the breach of contract claim based upon lack of actual and apparent authority. In moving for summary judgment on the fraud claim, Defendants cited Illinois case law holding that directors cannot be held personally liable for fraud unless they personally participated in perpetrating the fraud. As the directors did not sign the agreements or participate in their creation, the court granted summary judgment. Finally, Defendants successfully moved for summary judgment on the negligence claims because they did not know that Krupa had the potential for fraud.
Plaintiffs then appealed the trial court's ruling against them, and the Appellate Court conducted a de novo review of Defendants' motion for summary judgment. The Court agreed with the trial court's findings and held that Defendants were not negligent with respect to Krupa and did not know about his dealings with Plaintiffs. The Court went on to say that there was no reason for Defendants to suspect Krupa of wrongdoing.
In reviewing Zahl v. Krupa, the case serves as a reminder for business investors to carefully examine any investment opportunities and accompanying paperwork to ensure the legitimacy of the investment. Additionally, business owners and directors should keep an eye on their officers and employees to ensure that they do not find themselves defending a lawsuit for their employees' allegedly objectionable actions.