‘Closely Intertwined’ Business Relationship Equals Possible Joint Venture – Says Illinois Court

Consider this: a multi-national plastics seller (“Seller”) has a written contract with a plastics manufacturer (the “Manufacturer”) that labels the Manufacturer as an independent contractor of the Seller.  Under the agreement, the Seller supplies material to the Manufacturer who then makes plastic products exclusively for the Seller and sells the products back to the Seller.  The Seller buys the finished products from the Manufacturer at a pre-set price and then sells them to its (Seller’s) own customers.  The Seller and Manufacturer do not share any profits on Seller’s product sales.

An employee of the Manufacturer then gets injured on the job and sues both the Seller and Manufacturer for damages claiming they are joint venturers and therefore equally responsible for his injuries.  This is a significant event given the size and financial resources of the Seller.

Question: does this claim possibly have legs?

Answer: “Maybe.”  The First District held that the question of whether there is a joint venture between Seller and Manufacturer was open enough to survive summary judgment.

The plaintiff in Hyatt v. Western Plastics, 2014 IL App (2d) 140178, suffered severe injuries when his arms got caught in an extruding machine. He sued his employer – the “Manufacturer” in the above snippet – along with the Seller on the theory that there was a joint venture between the Manufacturer and Seller.  The trial court entered summary judgment for the Seller.  The plaintiff appealed.

Reversing the trial court, the First District engaged in a detailed analysis of some Illinois business structure basics:

A joint venture is an association of two or more persons to carry on a single enterprise for profit;

– Joint venture members  owe fiduciary duties to one another and are vicariously liable for negligent acts of the other joint venturers carried out in the course of the enterprise;

– No formal agreement is necessary to form a joint venture and it can be inferred from the parties’ conduct and surrounding circumstances;

– Joint venture is a creature of contract law; not a statute and depends on the parties’ intent;

– Cardinal joint venture traits include (1) a community of interest – manifested by the joint contribution of money, property, effort, skill or knowledge; (2) an express or implied agreement to carry on an enterprise; (3) a sharing of profits; and (4) joint control and management of the enterprise;

(¶¶ 72-77)

Synthesizing the case’s thick discovery record, the court found there was a disputed question of fact on whether the parties formed a joint venture.

Some of the evidence pieces that was key to the court’s summary judgment reversal included:

(1) The Manufacturer-Seller contract was nearly thirty years’ old (automatically renewing every year) and required the Manufacturer to make some 800,000 pounds of plastic products annually and to sell them exclusively to the Seller at a pre-set formula.;

(2) Exclusivity: the contract prevented the Manufacturer from selling the plastic product to anyone other than Seller and gave Seller the final say over any product or process changes;

(3) A “Cost Improvement” section of the contract provided that Seller and Manufacturer would share the benefits of cost improvements on a 50/50 basis;

(4) Multiple emails revealed that Seller’s and Manufacturer’s personnel discussed a mutually beneficial business relationship and alluded to long-term collaboration and cost savings sharing.

(¶¶ 80-101)

In the end, the Court really didn’t know what to make of the parties’ plastics making arrangement.  The most it could say was that it was  a “long-term, closely intertwined relationship.” (¶ 101).

Taken together, the evidence of the parties’ unique business model raised a material fact question (as to whether it was a joint venture) that should have survived summary judgment.

Afterwords:

Definitely a pro-plaintiff case in the sense that a company that’s arguably twice removed from an injured plaintiff and who sells to a universe of consumers unrelated to those the plaintiff’s employer sells to can still be deemed a joint venturer of that employer.

The case could have huge liability ramifications.  If a deep-pocketed seller can be viewed as being in a joint venture with a separate manufacturer, that seller is potentially on the hook for a high dollar jury verdict or settlement for actions of the manufacturer alone.

The case lesson for business defendants is clear: If the intent is to be considered separate and independent, they should document that and take pains not to jointly control business property or share in its profits.

 

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PaulP

Litigation attorney at Bielski Chapman, Ltd. representing businesses and individuals in business litigation, post-judgment enforcement, collections and real estate litigation.