Bank references — undisclosed principals needn’t apply

Banks will, if you will forgive the pun, be laughing all the way to themselves today courtesy of the UK Supreme Court. In Banca Nazionale del Lavoro SpA v Playboy Club London Ltd [2018] UKSC 43  the question was whether a Hedley Byrne duty of care could be invoked by an undisclosed principal. The Playboy Club in London was approached by a Lebanese gentleman, a Mr Barakat, who wanted a cheque-cashing facility of £800,000 to gamble with. The Club, with its usual caution, required a banker’s reference for twice that amount. With Mr Barakat’s permission, and quite properly not wishing to divulge to the bank the reason for Mr Barakat’s desire, it got an associated company, Burlington Street Services, to make the necessary inquiries as its undisclosed agent. The bank gave a positive answer despite the fact that Mr Barakat had no substantial funds deposited with it. Over four days Mr Barakat  gratefully bought £1.25 million of chips with two cheques, won and drew a cool half-million, and then departed. He never came back. His cheques did. Playboy, relying on its position as Burlington’s undisclosed principal, sued the bank for its losses.

Upholding the Court of Appeal, the Supreme Court in short order held that an undisclosed principal, being someone whom ex hypothesi the person giving the advice knew nothing of, could not take advantage of a Hedley Byrne duty of care. Even though we might talk about a relationship akin to contract in connection with Hedley Byrne, said the majority, thise was no reason to extend the anomalous doctrine of the undisclosed principal beyond contract so as to allow the creation of a duty of care in favour of a given claimant when none would otherwise exist.

The Playboy Club will now no doubt either bite the bullet and write its own reference requests, or possibly investigate some more sophisticated device (an assignment by Burlington of its rights in favour of the Club might come to mind). But the decision may have further implications. Many professional negligence claims — for example, against insurance sub-brokers, specialists employed by professional advisers, consulting engineers employed by construction companies, or sub-agents generally — lie exclusively in tort under Hedley Byrne. It now seems that, while a direct client of a professional person may contract as undisclosed agent and give his principal the right to sue the professional in contract in the event of any blunder, the principal will have to be content with this. He will not be able to sue anyone further down the chain. Whether this can be got round by allowing the ostensible client to sue for some notional loss suffered by it is a question that will have to be left to another day: but that day, as a result of Playboy, may well come round sooner than you think.

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