A Framework Emerges - Recent Developments In The Law Of Intentional Economic Torts

Economic torts provide relief in relation to intentional interference with economic interests. This collection of torts can be divided into two categories: deceptive market practices1 and improper market practices. This paper concerns itself exclusively with the latter, examining the torts of inducing breach of contract, unlawful interference with economic interests and civil conspiracy.

Historically, the torts of inducement to breach a contract (the "inducement tort"), unlawful interference with economic interests (the "unlawful interference tort") and civil conspiracy have been difficult to plead. This difficulty reflects the courts' struggle to clearly identify when the intentional interference with economic interests should be actionable. This struggle is, at least in part, attributable to the challenge of striking a proper balance between competition in a free market and unfair or improper market practices.

The relationship between the parties involved in an action for interference with economic interests is complicated by that fact that all three torts must involve at least three parties. Under the inducement tort, the plaintiff and a third party have a valid, subsisting contract, and the defendant, not a party to the contract, interferes. Although the plaintiff can take action against the third party for breach of contract, action can also be taken against the defendant. The unlawful interference tort arises where the defendant unlawfully interferes with the plaintiff's economic interests by conduct directed at a third party with the intent to cause the plaintiff injury. Where there is an existing contractual relationship between the plaintiff and a third party, the tort may be made out despite the fact that the contract is not breached if the plaintiff otherwise experiences injury to its economic interests arising from the defendant's use of unlawful means with intent to injure.

Alternatively, the tort may be committed in the absence of an underlying contract between the plaintiff and a third party, provided the plaintiff's economic interests are injured by the defendant's use of unlawful means in relation to a third party (where, for example, the formation of a contract is prevented by the defendant's use of unlawful means). The tort of civil conspiracy requires at least two parties to conspire against the plaintiff.

At times courts have conflated the requirements for pleading the unlawful interference tort with the requirements for pleading the inducement tort. Thankfully, in 2007 the House of Lords endeavoured to untangle the two in OBG Limited v. Allan.2 What have emerged are two separate, discrete torts. The Court of Appeal of New Brunswick and the Court of Appeal of Ontario have since applied some parts of the OBG Limited decision in their own judgments, providing their expertise regarding the necessary components for both the inducement torts and unlawful interference torts. To date, the Court of Appeal of British Columbia has not considered OBG Limited.

The objective of this paper is to set out the necessary elements for the three types of improper market practices torts: the inducement tort, the unlawful interference tort and the tort of civil conspiracy. After providing a brief history, the second and third sections will examine the inducement tort and the unlawful interference tort, respectively, and the fourth section will highlight the differences between the two. The fifth section will examine the tort of civil conspiracy. This paper will conclude with some thoughts on the future of the torts governing improper market practices in Canada.

I. A Brief History

The reticence of courts to interfere with market practices is illustrated by Allen v. Flood,3 an 1898 decision of the House of Lords. In Allen, the defendant trade union disapproved of the conduct of some of its members, the plaintiff group of shipwrights, and threatened their employer that it would call all employees out on a lawful strike unless the plaintiff shipwrights were dismissed. The employer obliged. The plaintiff shipwrights took action against the defendant union, and although it was found that the defendant union's actions were malicious and motivated purely by a desire to punish the plaintiff, it was not found liable because it had not committed any nominate economic tort.

Uncertainty surrounding the torts of improper market practices was compounded during the second half of the 20th century by the attempt of some courts to categorize the inducement tort as the unlawful interference tort. This led to the perception that liability was being expanded to include situations which did not fall properly under either tort and created confusion with respect to the necessary intention for liability.4

More than a century after Allen v. Flood was decided, the House of Lords in OBG Limited reengaged with these principles. This decision provided a clearer picture of what is required for the unlawful interference tort and the inducement tort.

II. Inducement to breach a contract

The tort of inducing breach of contract arises when a party's wilful interference results in the breach of an existing contract.5 When a third party knows of a contract between two parties and unjustifiably interferes with it to secure a breach of contract, the party who is harmed by the interference can take action against that third party.6

Traditionally, this tort has four requirements: 1) knowledge of the contract; 2) an intention to bring about a breach of the contract; 3) conduct which results in the breach of the contract; and 4) damages to the plaintiff. 7

Although the tort of inducing breach of contract is rooted in medieval law of master and servant,8 the modern version stems from the 1853 House of Lords case Lumley v. Gye.9 In Lumley, the plaintiff had a contract with an opera singer, Miss Wagner, to sing exclusively at his theatre. The defendant, who wanted to showcase Miss Wagner's talents at his own theatre and for his own benefit, persuaded Miss Wagner to break her contract with the plaintiff and sing exclusively for him. The plaintiff took action against the defendant, and although the defendant was not a party to the contract, he was found liable.10

In SAR Petroleum v. Peace Hills Trust Company,11 the New Brunswick Court of Appeal broke down the inducement tort into eight elements. The NBCA's articulation does not change the law but restates it, drawing attention to those elements that are often easily satisfied, and in turn ignored. The eight elements are:

there must have been a valid and subsisting contract between the plaintiff and a third party; the third party must have breached its contract with the plaintiff; the defendant's acts must have caused that breach; the defendant must have been aware of the contract; the defendant must have known it was inducing a breach of...

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