What might now be: Lost opportunity damages and the decision in Mal Owen

In my experience, lost opportunity damages claims are often fraught and the recent NSW Court of Appeal decision in Mal Owen Consulting Pty Limited v Ashcroft [2018] NSWCA 135 is no exception; though the appellant did get there in the end.

Mal Owen retained a solicitor to chase down some unpaid monies under a sale of business arrangement who did little or nothing about the case for about 3 years. They then retained new lawyers who eventually obtained a judgment and then bankrupted the debtor, a guarantor of the sale monies.

Mal Owen then sued the first solicitor on the basis that had he pursued the claim in a timely manner, the monies would have been recovered. Crucial to the claim was the allegation that the debtor’s financial circumstances had worsened considerably over time, ie. had he been sued earlier, the guarantor would more than likely have had the money to pay.

The claim against the solicitor was brought in both tort and contract (breach of retainer) and breaches in both were ultimately admitted. Sounds simple so far, right?

Each of the three Appeal Court judges then took largely different approaches to the case with Basten JA and Barrett AJA ultimately reaching the same result.

Basten JA reviewed the law on loss of an opportunity and concluded that the tortious standard for causation in lost opportunity cases was different to that applicable to a claim in contract, the latter being that which is applicable under trade practices statutes.

The tortious standard, his Honour opined, following the High Court in Badenach v Calvert (involving another negligence action against a solicitor), required the plaintiff to prove that it was “more probable than not that they would have received a valuable opportunity.”

This is the standard the trial judge had applied in finding that that on the evidence the plaintiff had not shown that the position would have been any different had the first solicitor acted expeditiously in seeking to recover the debt.

Justice Basten then went on to find that whilst the lost opportunity needed to be identifed with precision, the claim in contract only required that there be a “possibility of recovery of some damages”. Then the well-known principles set down by the High Court in Sellars were to be applied in applying a percentage reduction to the likely full value of the chance to account for the relevant contingencies. For various reasons, his Honour thought full recovery unlikely, even if the first proceedings had been pursued expeditiously. He therefore applied a 50% reduction.

Macfarlan JA, in dissent, found that the Court was bound by the High Court’s decision in Badenach, which required the causation issue, being a fact, to be proven on the civil standard just like any other. In reviewing the evidence, his Honour found that he couldn’t be satisfied that the debtor’s financial position would have been better at the time when the first solicitor was meant to be pursuing him for the money. His Honour didn’t deal with the contract and tort claims separately.

Nor did Barrett AJA, who applied Badenach and in particular the judgment of French CJ, Kiefel and Keene JJ describing the plaintiff’s onus as being proof on balance that there was a “substantial prospect of a beneficial outcome”, a test which itself seems fairly ambiguous. Be that as it may, his Honour Justice Barrett was satisfied that the test for causation had been met because he characterised the evidence regarding the debtor’s financial circumstances differently to the manner in which Macfarlan JA had done. But it was the way that his Honour characterised the relevant test for causation that is most interesting, stating (at [101]):

“At the first stage concerned with causation, the task is no more than to confirm the value is not in the realms of the merely theoretical or negligible – in other words, to establish, according to the balance of probabilities, that there is some colour of value to the lost opportunity.”

Once the causation gateway had been opened, the second stage of the process, ie. assessment was his Honour found necessarily “a process of estimating extending even to guesswork.”

This led his Honour to the same conclusion (including with regard to the applicable percentage reduction of 50%) as that which was reached by Basten JA and so the appeal succeeded.

Those negligence cases with a claim in contract in the alternative that involve an allegation of a lost opportunity will no doubt find Basten JA’s decision helpful. It seems as though as long as the opportunity can be identified with a fair degree of specificity, some damages will flow. It also appears to take a considerable degree of pressure off with regard to the evidence required to make out the claim, which is often the hardest part. Justice Barrett’s decision would also appear helpful even if there is only a claim in tort available.

Maybe the prospects for the poor old lost opportunity damages claim are now looking a little brighter.

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Filed under causation, Civil, Crime, damages, evidence, Negligence

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