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Herrie Windsor Construction (Pty) Ltd v Raubenheimers Inc 7533/2015 H245 2013 (22 April 2016)

28 September 2016

On 29 January 2010, at George, the Plaintiff concluded a lease agreement with Parexel International South Africa (“Parexel”).

It was a material term of the lease agreement that the lessee would have an option to renew the lease for a further period of five years commencing from 1 July 2010. In terms of clause 13 of the lease agreement the lessee would, if so required in writing by the lessor, return the premises to a state prior to any alternators affected thereon. Parexel exercised its option to renew the lease so that same was valid and binding until 30 June 2015.

Paraexel utilised the leased premises for a specific purpose of testing medicine. Although a South African company with leased premises in George, Western Cape, Paraexel was an international company with its parent company based in the USA. Dr Michelle Middle (“Dr Middle”) was one of its directors.

Later in 2010 Paralexel decided that it would withdraw from South Africa. Dr Middle (a director of both Parexel, the plaintiff and a co-owner of the leased premises) seized the opportunity and decided to set up and start off the same business for her own account under the name of Ubuntu utilising an entity Ibunti Trade 56 (Pty) Ltd (“Ibunti”) as a vehicle to procure the business from Paraexel as a going concern.

Dr Middle wished to procure Paraexel as a going concern. Paraxel agreed, subject to two conditions:

  1. There would have to concluded a sublease agreement between Parexel and Ibunti. In the event of the suggested sub-lease agreement being concluded between Parexel and the new entity, Parexel would guarantee rental payment for the duration of the remaining period of the lease.
  2. Dr Middle would acquire the equipment installed at the leased premises for no consideration at all but that, as a quid pro quo, Paraxel required to be released from its obligation arising from the restoration clause (estimated to be about R8m to restore the premises).

The above two conditions were agreed upon in principle, but Ibunti, being a start-up company, did not have R8m to meet the estimated restoration costs. The Plaintiff’s board of directors, after further negotiations with Dr Middle, agreed the plaintiff would waive its rights arising from the restoration clause (thereby also releasing Paralexel of its obligation to restore), but that Ibunti would assume the restoration clause subject thereto that Ibunti, for the duration of the sub-lease agreement, transfer ownership to the plaintiff of all movable goods in the leased premises and that these conditions be incorporated and/or included in the proposed sub-lease agreement.

Dr Middle instructed her attorneys to draw the sub-lease agreement, which would need a clause in terms of which ownership of all improvements, equipment and movable assets in the leased premises transferred from Parexel to Ibunti. The sub lease would also need a clause in terms of which ownership of the movable assets would be transferred to the plaintiff, such transfer to endure to the duration of the remaining period of the lease. The transfer of ownership of movable assets would be in exchange of the plaintiff waiving its right against Parexel arising from the restoration clause.

Dr Van Breda, of the defendant, who acted for Dr Middle, was to attend to the drafting of the sub-lease agreement. The sub-lease agreement was signed and Ibunti took over Parexel’s Business of testing medicine for its own account. However, business did not got as anticipated and Ibunti went into voluntary liquidation. Ibunti, which subsequently changed its name to Q Dot Pharma (Pty) Ltd, was provisionally liquidated on 7 June 2012.

Upon liquidation, the liquidators took ownership of all movable goods in the leased premises. The Plaintiff’s endeavour to claim the movable goods from the liquidators did not succeed.

The plaintiff complained that it suffered loss as a consequence of failure by the defendant, in drafting a sublease agreement between Parexel and Ibunti, omitted to provide the security the plaintiff required in the sub-lease agreement in terms of which plaintiff would secure ownership of the movable assets in the leased premises in the event Ibunti ceased business operation before the expiry of the lease and that such omission constituted negligence which attracts liability.

Issue:

As the plaintiff did not instruct the defendant to draw the agreement (such instruction being given to Dr Middle to Dr Van Breda on behalf of Ibunti) the issues that arose were whether the defendant, in the circumstances of this matter, owed the plaintiff a legal obligation to act reasonably in preparing the sub-lease agreement.

Law:

Various jurisdictions such as the USA; Germany and the Commonwealth have held liable legal advisors in delict in respect of their actions which affect parties other than their own formal clients in a wide variety of situations. South African courts have not as yet had much opportunity to consider the specific issues relating to attorney’s liability to non-clients.

The court held that it was justified considering foreign law, so as to give some guidance, and summarised as follows:

  • In Hawkins v Clayton 1988 79 ACL 69 – a firm of solicitors was held liable for failing to draw a will timeously, causing would be beneficiaries to be disinherited;
  • In Midland Bank Trust Co Limited and Another v Hett, Stubs & Camp [1978] 3 All ER 571 – a firm of solicitors was held liable for failing to register an option to purchase land, causing the grantee of the option to be unable to purchase the land until it had already been sold;
  • In Penn v Bristol & West Building Society [1996] 2 FCR 729 – a firm of solicitors was held liable for failing to check with the wife of their client whether she wished her house to be transferred, in a case where the husband co-owner obtained the transfer by fraudulent means.

Jr Midgley, in his work Lawyer’s Professional Liability cites the authority of Biankanja v Irving 49 Cal 2D 647 where the California Supreme Court, in the determination of a liability to a non-client said the following:

“The determination whether in a specific case the defendant will be held liable to a third person not in privity is a matter of policy and involves the balancing of various factors, among which are the extent to which the transaction was intended to affect the plaintiff, the foreseeability of harm to him, the degree of certainty that the plaintiff would suffer injury, the closeness of the connection between the defendant’s conduct and the injury suffered, the moral blame attached to the defendant’s conduct and the policy of preventing future harm.”

In terms of Delictual Liability (Legal Duty) in the matter of Lucas v Hamm, the California Supreme Court held that a third party could take a third party action founded in either contract or delict.

Midgley in his work Lawyers Professional 1992 navigates many authorities in the USA, and concludes that in Anglo American Law two tests have been used to determine whether contracting parties owe third parties any delictual duties, these being: foreseeability tests and the multi-criteria balancing test. Midgley states that the foreseeability test has lost much of its influence and the multi-criteria balancing test, along with policy considerations, is preferred. The policy considerations are foreseeability of harm, knowledge of the extent to which the transaction was intended to affect non-client; reliance on the opinion given and potential excessive burden on the profession, amongst other factors.

In as far as misrepresentation is concerned, Midley at pg 109 notes that where a lawyer makes representations which are relied upon by a third party, there is no need to deviate much from the usual criteria of delictuall liability (general rule: lawyer who intentionally or negligently makes a misrepresentation acts unlawfully).

Result:

The Defendant attorneys, due to no inventory of movable goods being available, suggested the creation of a sub-lease agreement clause in which Ibunti would transfer ownership of the movable assets to the plaintiff in the event that Ibunti ceased business operations before the expiry of the sub-lease agreement. This form of security did not materialise and the movable goods were seized by the liquidators on the granting of the final order of liquidation. The plaintiff’s claim to the liquidators for the release of the goods to it was unsuccessful.

The Defendant attorneys did not have formal instructions from the Plaintiff to protect its interests. Dr Van Breda knew at the time of the drafting of the lease agreement the interest that the plaintiff sought to protect and the incorporation thereof in the sub-lease agreement. As pointed out by Sir Robery Megarry VC in Ross v Caunters (a firm),a solicitor who [is] instructed by his client to carry out a transaction to confer a benefit on an identified third party owed a duty to that third party to use proper care in carrying out the instructions”. Dr Van Breda clearly had a duty to use proper care in favour of the plaintiff in carrying out its instructions.

In conclusion the court held that the defendant WAS liable to the plaintiff for such damages the plaintiff may have suffered by reason of the fact that ownership of the equipment and the other movable goods in the then leased premises had not been transferred to the plaintiff.