High Court Strikes Out Shareholders' Claim Barred By The Reflective Loss Rule

Published date28 March 2022
Subject MatterFinance and Banking, Corporate/Commercial Law, Financial Services, Corporate and Company Law, Shareholders
Law FirmHerbert Smith Freehills
AuthorMr Julian Copeman, Ceri Morgan, Nihar Lovell and Claire Nicholas

The High Court has struck out a claim by the former shareholders of a dissolved company against an investor on the basis that all the losses claimed were barred by the reflective loss principle: Burnford & Ors v Automobile Association Developments Ltd [2022] EWHC 368 (Ch).

As a reminder, the Supreme Court in Sevilleja v Marex Financial Ltd [2020] UKSC 31 confirmed (by a 4-3 majority) that the reflective loss principle is a bright line legal rule, which prevents only shareholders from bringing a claim based on any fall in the value of their shares or distributions, which is the consequence of loss sustained by the company, in respect of which the company has a cause of action against the same wrongdoer (see our blog post).

Although the company in the present case had been dissolved, the High Court found that the claimants' claim fell within the ambit of the reflective loss principle.

The decision is of interest because of the High Court's consideration of the question as to the time at which the reflective loss rule falls to be assessed. In Nectrus Ltd v UCP plc [2021] EWCA Civ 57, Flaux LJ (as he then was) sitting as a single judge of the Court of Appeal refused permission to appeal and in doing so held that the claim of an ex-shareholder was not barred by the reflective loss principle, finding that the rule should be assessed at the time the claim is made. However, in Primeo Fund v Bank of Bermuda (Cayman) Ltd [2021] UKPC 22 the Board of the Privy Council (comprising five of the seven judges who had heard the Supreme Court appeal in Marex) concluded that Nectrus was wrongly decided. The Board confirmed that the rule falls to be assessed as at the point in time when a claimant suffers loss and not at the time proceedings are brought (see our blog post).

Notwithstanding the ruling of the Board of the Privy Council in Primeo, the High Court in the present case considered that it was bound by the decision in Nectrus, even though Flaux LJ's decision in Nectrus was made as a single member of the Court of Appeal on an application for permission to appeal, and would therefore not normally have any precedent value.

In spite of this, the High Court then concluded that the present case was distinguishable on its facts from Nectrus and did, therefore, follow the Board of the Privy Council's decision in Primeo. As such, even though the company in the present case was dissolved, the claimants' claims were barred because their losses were suffered in the capacity of shareholders, in the form of a diminution in the value of their shareholdings, which was the consequence of loss sustained by the company in respect of which the company had a cause of action against the same wrongdoer.

This case suggests a judicial reluctance to follow Nectrus, which is not surprising given its uncertain precedent value and the Privy Council's comments in Primeo. This may lead to further attempts to distinguish Nectrus in future cases, until the Court of Appeal has the opportunity to reconsider the issue properly.

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