Reflective loss — some unfinished business

Life in lugubrious legal lockdown was briefly relieved when last year the Supreme Court in Sevilleja v Marex Financial Ltd [2021] A.C. 39 pruned back the luxuriant growth of the reflective loss rule. To remind you, the reflective loss rule is the principle that you cannot sue X for damages in so far as (i) you are a shareholder in Y Ltd; (ii) Y Ltd could itself have sued X; and (iii) the loss you seek to have made good simply reflects the depreciation in your shareholding due to the damage wrongfully caused by X to Y. Marex had the effect of limiting this restrictive rule rule to claims by shareholders, and scotching the heresy that it extended more generally to any case where X was guilty of a wrong against Y which incidentally cased loss to some third party Z (the claimant in that case being not a shareholder but a mere creditor).

By common consent, Marex left a fair number of loose ends to be tidied up later. In a Cayman appeal today, Primeo Fund v Bank of Bermuda & Ors [2021] UKPC 22, the Privy Council neatly knotted one such, namely that of timing. Granted that a shareholder in Y Ltd cannot sue X for loss reflecting the diminution in his holding in Y Ltd, what is the relevant time: is it when the cause of action arises, or when the claimant sues?

Simplifying as far as possible, Primeo was the Cayman Islands investment arm of the Bank of Austria. In the 1990s it appointed as custodians and investment advisers a couple of companies connected with the Bank of Bermuda, R1 and R2. It was then unlucky enough to be introduced to BLMIS LLC, in effect a unit trust operated by the redoubtable Ponzi fraudster Bernie Madoff. Large sums of money were entrusted by Primeo to BLMIS, most of which (it was found) were immediately appropriated by Mr Madoff and his pals.

In 2007 Primeo’s investment was restructured: its interests in BLMIS were transferred to a separate corporate vehicle, Herald Fund SPC, and in exchange Primeo got shares in Herald. At the same time R1 and R2 agreed to function as custodians and investment advisers to Herald.

Just before Christmas 2008 the Madoff house of cards collapsed, and with it BLMIS. As part of the ensuing litigation, Primeo – itself by then in liquidation – sued R1 and R2 for failing in the years before 2007 to alert it to indications that Mr Madoff was an obvious crook, and thus causing it to entrust more money to him and not to withdraw what it had while the going was good. One defence was reflective loss. R1 and R2 argued that, in so far as Herald could have sued them for loss caused to it (on the basis that they had negligently allowed it to take over assets from Primeo which it was now clear had been of very doubtful value all along), and that because as a result of events in 2007 Primeo’s loss now fell to be reckoned by the diminution of the value of its holding in Herald, the case fell squarely within the reflective loss rule.

The Cayman courts agreed, but the Privy Council was having none of it. It rightly pointed out that since Marex it had been clear that reflective loss was a rule of substantive law, rather than one of damages or title to sue. If so, it followed that the relevant time for seeing whether it applied was the time of the wrong for which compensation was sought. In Primeo, at that time there could have been no question of reflective loss: it was simply a case of allegedly bad advice leading to direct investment in a fraudulent scheme. It was at that moment that Primeo’s rights had crystallised, and nothing that happened later could take them away. It followed that the case was outside the reflective loss principle entirely.

In deciding as it did, the Privy Council had to deal with one awkward decision of the Court of Appeal, Nectrus Ltd v UCP Plc [2021] EWCA Civ 57. In that case, essentially a mirror image of Primeo, a claimant had as a result of allegedly negligent advice invested in securities through a wholly-owned subsidiary. Since the subsidiary could also have sued the adviser, the claim was fairly and squarely within the principle. However, by the time the action was brought the claimant had divested itself of the subsidiary and its holding; and the Court of Appeal had held that this removed the reflective loss bar. However, the Privy Council rightly held that such reasoning could not stand scrutiny, and that Nectrus had been wrongly decided on the point.

It may be that this open discountenancing of Nectrus as wrongly decided will be taken as an express statement that English courts should no longer follow Nectrus, something which since 2016 has been possible in the Privy Council: see Lord Neuberger in Willers v Joyce (No 2) [2018] A.C. 843 at [21]. This blog certainly hopes so. It would be very unfortunate were a judge at first instance to feel constrained to follow Nectrus on the basis that this bound him, whereas a mere decision of the Privy Council (which is not technically an English court) did not. But only time, and the inclination of litigants to put their money where their mouth is, will tell.

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