Got a claim against a subsidiary but would like to go against the parent? We have some bad news.

You have an important ongoing contract with X, a subsidiary of a major foreign conglomerate Y. Then Y re-organises its business in a way that doesn’t involve you. X tells you it is regretfully going to break its contract. Obviously you can sue X; but can you sue Y as well? The result of this morning’s deision of the Court of Appeal in Kawasaki Kisen Kaisha Ltd v James Kemball Ltd [2021] EWCA Civ 33 is that in practice, in the vast majority of cases the answer is No.

Shipping lawyers will know the background. KKK a couple of years ago completed a reorganisation of its business; the container side was merged down into ONE, a joint venture with a couple of ex-competitors. Before the reorganisation, ancillary trucking etc in Europe had been organised by a sub-subsidiary of KKK called K-Euro, which had signed up the claimant JKL to do the haulage. This arrangement was now redundant, and K-Euro told JKL it would not be performing further.

JKL seems to have had a clear breach claim against K-Euro, but was not satisfied with it. History and legal confidentiality do not relate why, but there may have been doubts about K-Euro’s long-term solvency and/or a troublesome limitation of liability clause in the JKL – K-Euro contract. Be that as it may, JKL sued KKK for inducing a breach of contract, and sought to serve out in Japan. Teare J allowed this (see [2019] EWHC 3422 (Comm)); but the Court of Appeal disagreed, on the basis that on the evidence the claim had no realistic prospect of success..

The difficulty was twofold. First, despite the existence of a relationship of corporate control, and indeed substantial overlapping directorships, as between KKK and K-Euro, there was no element of persuasion or inducement by the former of the latter. KKK had not induced or persuaded K-Euro to break any contract. Instead, it had been a matter not so much of persuasion as practical compulsion: KKK had reorganised its business wholesale, with the inevitable (and admittedly entirely foreseen) result that K-Euro was forced to break the old arrangement. That, said the Court of Appeal, was something different. Furthermore, inducement of breach of contract required the defendant in some sense to have aimed his actions against the claimant. But here KKK had in no sense aimed its act at JKL, as might have been the case had it told K-Euro directly to appoint another haulier in its stead: instead, the loss to JKL had been, as it were, mere collateral damage.

This seems right. True, the suggested distinction between persuasion and compulsion needs to be taken with some care: if I threaten never to deal with X again unless X breaks his contract with you, I remain liable under Lumley v Gye (1853) 2 E & B 216, and pointing out that I bullied X rather than gently cajoling him will do me no good at all. Perhaps it is better expressed as the difference between the defendant who at least in some way desires the breach of contract, if only as a means to an end, and is liable, and the defendant who knows the result will be a breach but is otherwise indifferent, who is not. But the precise drawing of the line can be left to another day.

What we are left with is what we said at the beginning. If you contract with a subsidiary company, your chances of visiting the consequences of a breach of contract by the latter on its parent concern are low. As, at least in the view of this blog, they should be. If you contract with one entity, then generally it is to that entity that you should look if something goes wrong: to give you a cause of action against some other part of the corporate pyramid, you should need to show something fairly egregious – like a deliberate subornation of breach. Nothing short of that will, or should, do.

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