Corporate Five-Year Winding Up or “Survival” Period Has Harsh Results for Asbestos Injury Plaintiffs – Illinois Court

An Illinois appeals court recently considered the interplay between the corporate survival statute, 805 ILCS 5/12.80 (the “Survival Act”), which governs lawsuits against dissolved corporations) and when someone can bring a direct action against another person’s liability insurer.

The personal injury plaintiffs in Adams v. Employers Insurance Company of Wasau, 2016 IL App (3d) 150418 sued their former employer’s successor for asbestos-related injuries. Plaintiffs also sued the former company’s liability insurers for a declaratory ruling that their claims were covered by the policies.

The former employer dissolved in 2003 and plaintiffs filed suit in 2011. The plaintiffs alleged the dissolved company’s insurance policies transferred to the shareholders and the corporate successor. The insurers moved to dismiss on the basis that the plaintiff’s suit was untimely under the Survival Act’s five-year winding up (“survival”) period to sue dissolved companies and because Illinois law prohibits direct actions against insurers by non-policy holders.

Affirming dismissal of the suit against the insurers, the court considered the scope of the Survival Act and whether its five-year repose period (the time limit to sue a defunct company) can ever be relaxed.

The Survival Act allows a corporation to sue or be sued up to five years from the date of dissolution. The suit must be based on a pre-dissolution debt and the five-year limit applies equally to individual corporate shareholders.  The statute tries to strike a balance between allowing lawsuits to be brought by or against a dissolved corporation and still setting a definite end date for a corporation’s liability. The five-year time limit for a corporation to sue or be sued represents the legislature’s determination that a corporation’s liability must come to and end at some point.

Exceptions to the Survival Act’s five-year repose period apply where a shareholder is a direct beneficiary of a contract and where the amount claimed is a “fixed, ascertainable sum.”

The Court held that since the plaintiffs didn’t file suit until long after the five-year repose period expired, and no shareholder direct actions were involved, the plaintiffs’ claims against the dissolved company (the plaintiffs’ former employer) were too late.

Illinois law also bans direct actions against insurance companies. The policy reason for this is to prevent a jury in a personal injury suit from learning that a defendant is insured and eliminate a jury’s temptation to award a larger verdict under the “deep pockets” theory (to paraphrase: “since defendant is protected by insurance, we may as well hit him with a hefty verdict.”)

The only time a direct action is allowed is where the question of coverage is entirely separate from the issue of the insured’s liability and damages. Where a plaintiff’s claim combines liability, damages and coverage, the direct action bar applies (the plaintiff cannot sue someone else’s insurer).

Here, the plaintiffs’ coverage claim was intertwined with the former employer’s (the dissolved entity) liability to the plaintiffs.  As a result, the plaintiffs action was an impermissible direct action against the dissolved company’s insurers.

Take-aways:

The Case starkly illustrates how unforgiving a statutory repose period is.  While the plaintiff’s injuries here were substantial, the Court made it clear it had to follow the law and that where the legislature has spoken – as it had by enacting the Survival Act – the Court must defer to it. Otherwise, the court encroaches on the law-making function of the legislature.

Another case lesson is that plaintiffs who have claims against dissolved companies should do all they can to ensure their claims are filed within the five-year post-dissolution period.  Otherwise, they risk having their claims time-barred.

 

Sole Shareholder Of Dissolved Corporation Can Sue Under Nine-Year Old Contract – Eludes Five-Year ‘Survival’ Rule

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Haskins, d/b/a Windows Siding Unlimited, Inc. v. Hogan, 2015 IL App (3d) 140609-U – A Synopsis

In 2003, Plaintiff’s former company entered into a written contract with defendant to install windows on defendant’s home. Defendant failed to pay.

The windows company was administratively dissolved in 2005 by the Illinois Secretary of State.  Seven years later, in 2012, Plaintiff – the sole shareholder of the windows company – assigned the company’s claim against the defendant to himself and sued defendant for breach of contract.

The court granted the defendant’s motion for summary judgment and found that the claim was untimely under Illinois’ five-year survival period for a dissolved corporation’s claims.  Plaintiff appealed.

Reversing the trial court, the appeals court first noted that a dissolved corporation’s assets belong to the former shareholders, subject to the rights of creditors.

Section 12.80 of the Business Corporation Act provides that an administrative dissolution of a company does not take away or effect any civil remedy belonging to the corporation, its directors, or shareholders, for any pre-dissolution claim or liability.

The lone limitation on this rule is that suit must be filed on the pre-dissolution claim within five years of the dissolution date. 805 ILCS 5/12.80.

This five-year “survival period” represents the outer limit for lawsuits by or against dissolved corporations.  The purpose of the five-year survival period is to allow the corporation to wrap up its affairs.  The court clarified that the five-year time span applies both to voluntary and involuntary dissolutions.

There are two exceptions to the five-year rule that allow a shareholder to file suit outside the five-year period.  They are: (1) where the shareholder is a direct beneficiary of the contract; and (2) where the shareholder seeks to recover a fixed, easily calculable sum.  (¶ 17).

To meet the first exception, the shareholder must show the parties manifested an intent to confer a benefit on the third party/shareholder. Here, this first exception didn’t apply since there was nothing in the contract suggesting an intent to benefit the plaintiff individually: the windows contract was clearly between a corporate entity (the windows company) and the defendant.

The second exception did apply, however.  The contract was for a fixed sum – $5,070.  As a result, the court found the 10-year limitations period for breach of written contracts applied (instead of the 5-year survival statute) and the plaintiff’s suit was timely (he sued in 2012 for a 2003 breach – within 10 years.) (¶¶ 17-20); 735 ILCS 5/13-206.

Comments: An interesting application of the five-year corporate survival rule to the small claims context.  It appears to be wrongly decided though.  The plaintiff clearly didn’t establish the first exception to the five-year rule: that he was a third-party beneficiary of the 2003 windows contract.  Since he failed to establish both exceptions, the five-year rule should have applied and time-barred the plaintiff’s claim.

Maybe it’s because the plaintiff was the sole shareholder of the defunct corporation that the court collapsed the two exceptions.  Regardless, it remains to be seen whether this decision is corrected or reversed later on.