Litigation and Dispute Resolution

What’s your damage? The calculation of damages for misleading and deceptive conduct

28 June, 2017

On 24 July 2018 Mark McVeigh (McVeigh), a 23-year-old, commenced proceedings in the Federal Court of Australia against his super fund, Retail Employees Superannuation Fund Pty Ltd (REST) to require REST to provide him with information on how the fund is managing the risks of climate change.

McVeigh has been contributing to REST for 5 years. He wrote to REST in August last year asking how the fund was managing the risks involved in investing in companies that either contribute to or are at risk of climate change, including fossil fuel companies, as he believes that these investments could be at risk in the next few decades.

After REST refused to provide details around how it is managing climate change risk, McVeigh decided to commence proceedings to require the trustees of REST to provide information around what the trustees know in relation to the impact that climate change will have on REST’s investments, and what the trustees are doing in response to that knowledge.  In other words, McVeigh is seeking to understand what measures REST is taking to protect his retirement savings from potential risks associated with climate change.

The case will likely be watched carefully by the superannuation industry, as the Federal Court will be asked to apply established principles of trust law to novel facts which may be symptomatic of an increasing desire for the beneficiaries of superannuation funds to have greater insight and understanding about what, if any, risk management strategies have been put in place by the trustees responsible for the investment and management of their retirement funds.

Do you trust me?

Members of a superfund are beneficiaries of a trust.  Accordingly, the trustee of the trust will owe them a number of duties.  In Spellson v George (1987) 11 NSWLR 300, Powell J stated at 315-316:

“At the risk of being regarded as overly simplistic, it is as well to start with the fundamental proposition that one of the essential elements of a private trust … is that the trustee is subject to a personal obligation to hold, and deal with, the trust property for the benefit of [the beneficiaries]… It is, so it seems to me, a necessary corollary of the existence of that obligation that the trustee is liable to account to the [beneficiaries], and that being so, the trustee is obliged not only to keep proper accounts and allow a [beneficiary] to inspect them, but he must also, on demand, give a [beneficiary] information and explanation as to the investment of, and dealings with, the trust property.”

The duties flowing from this and other cases can be summarised as follows:

  1. trustees hold the trust property for the benefit of the beneficiaries;
  2. as part of this duty, beneficiaries are able to hold the trustee to account; and
  3. so the trustee can be kept accountable, they are obliged to keep accounts and provide these, or other information, to beneficiaries upon their request.

One exception to the production of documents and information, is that when it comes to an exercise of discretionary power, a trustee is not obliged to disclose material evidencing the reasons why they made a particular decision: Hartigan Nominees Pty Ltd v Rydge (1992) NSWLR 405, 434.

If the trustee is required to hold the trust property for the benefit of the beneficiaries, a question arises as to how it can be used.  It is well established that the ‘general rules of equity’ impose a duty on trustees of ‘investing trust funds’ that the trustee has not requested to be distributed: Wharton v Masterman [1895] AC 186, 197.

How the trust funds are to be invested will turn on the terms of the trust deed.  REST’s trust deed is broad, with clause 9 providing a number of modes of investment, including ‘any investment authorised by law for the investment of trust funds’.

Any  investment?

The leading authority on the modes of trustee investments is the judgment of Viscount Megarry in the English case of Cowan v Scargill [1984] 2 All ER 750 (Cowan). In this case, the National Coal Board established a pension scheme for mineworkers. There were ten trustees, five appointed by the board and five by the mineworkers’ union.  The trust deed provided for wide powers of investment. The union trustees refused to approve the 1982 periodic investment plan unless it was amended to remove overseas investments and investments in all energy sources other than coal.  The trustees appointed by the board applied to the Court for directions.

In finding that the union trustees were in breach of their fiduciary duties, his Lordship set out the following relevant principles:

  1. ‘The starting point is the duty of trustees to exercise their powers in the best interests of the present and future beneficiaries … this duty of the trustees towards their beneficiaries is paramount… When the purpose of the trust is to provide financial benefits for the beneficiaries, as is usually the case, the best interests of the beneficiaries are normally their best financial interests.’
  2. ‘In considering what investments to make trustees must put on one side their own personal interests and views.  Trustees may have strongly held social or political views… In the conduct of their own affairs, they are free to abstain from making [certain] investments.  Yet under a trust, if investments of this type would be more beneficial to the beneficiaries than other investments, the trustees must not refrain from making the investments by reasons of the views that they hold.  Trustees may even have to act dishonourably (though not illegally) if the interests of the beneficiaries require it.’
  3. An exception exists where, for example, ‘the only actual or potential beneficiaries of a trust are all adults with very strict views on moral and social matters… The beneficiaries might well consider that it was far better to receive less than to receive more money from what they consider to be evil and tainted sources… But I would emphasise that such cases are likely to be very rare.’

From the above, it is clear that Cowan is authority for the proposition that trustees have a duty (subject to contrary direction in the trust deed) to make investments that advance the financial interests of beneficiaries (so long as they are legal), notwithstanding their political or social views.  Trustees can take into consideration the views of the beneficiaries, but unless all of the beneficiaries have strong views about the investment, this will not justify an investment that prejudices the financial interests of the beneficiaries.

A changing climate for superannuation funds?

It is unclear whether McVeigh’s request for information with respect to the measures that REST is taking to manage the impact of climate change on its investments will be successful in the Federal Court.  The case is next before the Federal Court for directions on 28 August 2018.

Although McVeigh is entitled to inspect trust documents as a beneficiary of REST, the trustee has a right to exercise discretion as to the mode of investment and a duty to obtain the best financial return for REST’s beneficiaries.  Furthermore, the trustee is not obliged to disclose the reasons for its exercise of this discretionary power or the information which influenced those reasons.

However, given the potential long-term financial impacts of climate change, and a shifting understanding of how those risks can or should be managed, there is increasing scrutiny on trustees whose obligations are to protect the long-term financial investment of superannuation funds, particularly in relation to young people whose financial futures will be most directly impacted by any investment strategy which does not consider or mitigate risk considered over the long term.

We recently published an article considering whether company directors have a duty to consider the risks of climate change. You can access that article here.

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Litigation and Dispute Resolution

Canadian Court elevates thumbs-up emoji to signature status

In June 2023, a Canadian Court in South-West Terminal Ltd v Achter Land and Cattle Ltd, 2023 SKKB 116, held that the "thumbs-up" emoji carried enough weight to constitute acceptance of contractual terms, analogous to that of a "signature", to establish a legally binding contract.   Facts This case involved a contractual dispute between two parties namely South-West Terminal ("SWT"), a grain and crop inputs company; and Achter Land & Cattle Ltd ("ALC"), a farming corporation. SWT sought to purchase several tonnes of flax at a price of $17 per bushel, and in March 2021, Mr Mickleborough, SWT's Farm Marketing Representative, sent a "blast" text message to several sellers indicating this intention. Following this text message, Mr Mickleborough spoke with Mr Achter, owner of ALC, whereby both parties verbally agreed by phone that ALC would supply 86 metric tonnes of flax to SWT at a price of $17 per bushel, in November 2021. After the phone call, Mr Mickleborough applied his ink signature to the contract, took a photo of it on his mobile phone and texted it to Mr Archter with the text message, "please confirm flax contract". Mr Archter responded by texting back a "thumbs-up" emoji, but ultimately did not deliver the 87 metric tonnes of flax as agreed.   Issues The parties did not dispute the facts, but rather, "disagreed as to whether there was a formal meeting of the minds" and intention to enter into a legally binding agreement. The primary issue that the Court was tasked with deciding was whether Mr Achter's use of the thumbs-up emoji carried the same weight as a signature to signify acceptance of the terms of the alleged contract. Mr Mickleborough put forward the argument that the emoji sent by Mr Achter conveyed acceptance of the terms of the agreement, however Mr Achter disagreed arguing that his use of the emoji was his way of confirming receipt of the text message. By way of affidavit, Mr Achter stated "I deny that he accepted the thumbs-up emoji as a digital signature of the incomplete contract"; and "I did not have time to review the Flax agreement and merely wanted to indicate that I did receive his text message." Consensus Ad Idem In deciding this issue, the Court needed to determine whether there had been a "formal meeting of the minds". At paragraph [18], Justice Keene considered the reasonable bystander test: " The court is to look at “how each party’s conduct would appear to a reasonable person in the position of the other party” (Aga at para 35). The test for agreement to a contract for legal purposes is whether the parties have indicated to the outside world, in the form of the objective reasonable bystander, their intention to contract and the terms of such contract (Aga at para 36). The question is not what the parties subjectively had in mind, but rather whether their conduct was such that a reasonable person would conclude that they had intended to be bound (Aga at para 37)."   Justice Keene considered several factors including: The nature of the business relationship, notably that Mr Achter had a long-standing business relationship with SWT going back to at least 2015 when Mr Mickleborough started with SWT; and   The consistency in the manner by which the parties conducted their business by way of verbal conversation either in person or over the phone to come to an agreement on price and volume of grain, which would be followed by Mr Mickleborough drafting a contract and sending it to Mr Achter. Mr Mickleborough stated, "I have done approximately fifteen to twenty contracts with Achter"; and   The fact that the parties had both clearly understood responses by Mr Achter such as "looks good", "ok" or "yup" to mean confirmation of the contract and "not a mere acknowledgment of the receipt of the contract" by Mr Achter.   Judgment At paragraph [36], Keene J said: "I am satisfied on the balance of probabilities that Chris okayed or approved the contract just like he had done before except this time he used a thumbs-up emoji. In my opinion, when considering all of the circumstances that meant approval of the flax contract and not simply that he had received the contract and was going to think about it. In my view a reasonable bystander knowing all of the background would come to the objective understanding that the parties had reached consensus ad item – a meeting of the minds – just like they had done on numerous other occasions." The court satisfied that the use of the thumbs-up emoji paralleled the prior abbreviated texts that the parties had used to confirm agreement ("looks good", "yup" and "ok"). This approach had become the established way the parties conducted their business relationship.   Significance of the Thumbs-Up Emoji Justice Keene acknowledged the significance of a thumbs-up emoji as something analogous to a signature at paragraph [63]: "This court readily acknowledges that a thumbs-up emoji is a non-traditional means to "sign" a document but nevertheless under these circumstances this was a valid way to convey the two purposes of a "signature" – to identify the signator… and… to convey Achter's acceptance of the flax contract." In support of this, Justice Keene cited the definition of the thumbs-up emoji: "used to express assent, approval or encouragement in digital communications, especially in western cultures", confirming that the thumbs-up emoji is an "action in an electronic form" that can be used to allow express acceptance as contemplated under the Canadian Electronic Information and Documents Act 2000. Justice Keene dismissed the concerns raised by the defence that accepting the thumbs up emoji as a sign of agreement would "open the flood gates" to new interpretations of other emojis, such as the 'fist bump' and 'handshake'. Significantly, the Court held, "I agree this case is novel (at least in Skatchewan), but nevertheless this Court cannot (nor should it) attempt to stem the tide of technology and common usage." Ultimately the Court found in favour of SWT, holding that there was a valid contract between the parties and that the defendant breached by failing to deliver the flax. Keene J made a judgment against ALC for damages in the amount of $82,200.21 payable to SWT plus interest.   What does this mean for Australia? This is a Canadian decision meaning that it is not precedent in Australia. However, an Australian court is well within its rights to consider this judgment when dealing with matters that come before it with similar circumstances. This judgment is a reminder that the common law of contract has and will continue to evolve to meet the everchanging realities and challenges of our day-to-day lives. As time has progressed, we have seen the courts transition from sole acceptance of the traditional "wet ink" signature, to electronic signatures. Electronic signatures are legally recognised in Australia and are provided for by the Electronic Transactions Act 1999 and the Electronic Transactions Regulations 2020. Companies are also now able to execute certain documents via electronic means under s 127 of the Corporations Act. We have also seen the rise of electronic platforms such as "DocuSign" used in commercial relationships to facilitate the efficient signing of contracts. Furthermore, this case highlights how courts will interpret the element of "intention" when determining whether a valid contract has been formed, confirming the long-standing principle that it is to be assessed objectively from the perspective of a reasonable and objective bystander who is aware of all the relevant facts. Overall, this is an interesting development for parties engaging in commerce via electronic means and an important reminder to all to be conscious of the fact that contracts have the potential to be agreed to by use of an emoji in today's digital age.

Published by Foez Dewan
29 August, 2023

Venues NSW ats Kerri Kane: Venues NSW successful in overturning a District Court decision

The McCabes Government team are pleased to have assisted Venues NSW in successfully overturning a District Court decision holding it liable in negligence for injuries sustained by a patron who slipped and fell down a set of steps at a sports stadium; Venues NSW v Kane [2023] NSWCA 192 Principles The NSW Court of Appeal has reaffirmed the principles regarding the interpretation of the matters to be considered under sections5B of the Civil Liability Act 2002 (NSW). There is no obligation in negligence for an occupier to ensure that handrails are applied to all sets of steps in its premises. An occupier will not automatically be liable in negligence if its premises are not compliant with the Building Code of Australia (BCA). Background The plaintiff commenced proceedings in the District Court of NSW against Venues NSW (VNSW) alleging she suffered injuries when she fell down a set of steps at McDonald Jones Stadium in Newcastle on 6 July 2019. The plaintiff attended the Stadium with her husband and friend to watch an NRL rugby league match. It was raining heavily on the day. The plaintiff alleged she slipped and fell while descending a stepped aisle which comprised of concrete steps between rows of seating. The plaintiff sued VNSW in negligence alleging the stepped aisle constituted a "stairwell" under the BCA and therefore ought to have had a handrail. The plaintiff also alleged that the chamfered edge of the steps exceeded the allowed tolerance of 5mm. The Decision at Trial In finding in favour of the plaintiff, Norton DCJ found that: the steps constituted a "stairwell" and therefore were in breach of the BCA due to the absence of a handrail and the presence of a chamfered edge exceeding 5mm in length. even if handrails were not required, the use of them would have been good and reasonable practice given the stadium was open during periods of darkness, inclement weather, and used by a persons of varying levels of physical agility. VNSW ought to have arranged a risk assessment of the entire stadium, particularly the areas which provided access along stepped surfaces. installation of a handrail (or building stairs with the required chamfered edge) would not impose a serious burden on VNSW, even if required on other similar steps. Issues on Appeal VNSW appealed the decision of Norton DCJ. The primary challenge was to the trial judge's finding that VNSW was in breach of its duty of care in failing to install a handrail. In addition, VNSW challenged the findings that the steps met the definition of a 'stairwell' under the BCA as well as the trial judge's assessment of damages. Decision on Appeal The Court of Appeal found that primary judge's finding of breach of duty on the part of VNSW could not stand for multiple reasons, including that it proceeded on an erroneous construction of s5B of the Civil Liability Act 2002 and the obvious nature of the danger presented by the steps. As to the determination of breach of duty, the Court stressed that the trial judge was wrong to proceed on the basis that the Court simply has regard to each of the seven matters raised in ss 5B and 5C of the CLA and then express a conclusion as to breach. Instead, the Court emphasised that s 5B(1)(c) is a gateway, such that a plaintiff who fails to satisfy that provision cannot succeed, with the matters raised in s 5B(2) being mandatory considerations to be borne in mind when determining s 5B(1)(c). Ultimately, regarding the primary question of breach of duty, the Court found that: The stadium contained hazards which were utterly familiar and obvious to any spectator, namely, steps which needed to be navigated to get to and to leave from the tiered seating. While the trial judge considered the mandatory requirements required by s5B(2) of the CLA, those matters are not exhaustive and the trial judge failed to pay proper to attention to the fact that: the stadium had been certified as BCA compliant eight years before the incident; there was no evidence of previous falls resulting in injury despite the stairs being used by millions of spectators over the previous eight years; and the horizontal surfaces of the steps were highly slip resistant when wet. In light of the above, the Court of Appeal did not accept a reasonable person in the position of VNSW would not have installed a handrail along the stepped aisle. The burden of taking the complained of precautions includes to address similar risks of harm throughout the stadium, i.e. installing handrails on the other stepped aisles. This was a mandatory consideration under s5C(a) which was not properly taken into account. As to the question of BCA compliance, the Court of Appeal did not consider it necessary to make a firm conclusion of this issue given it did not find a breach of duty.  The Court did however indicated it did not consider the stepped aisle would constitute a "stairway" under the BCA. The Court of Appeal also found that there was nothing in the trial judge's reasons explicitly connecting the risk assessment she considered VNSW ought to have carried out, with the installation of handrails on any of the aisles in the stadium and therefore could not lead to any findings regarding breach or causation. As to quantum, the Court of Appeal accepted that the trial judge erred in awarding the plaintiff a "buffer" of $10,000 for past economic loss in circumstances where there was no evidence of any loss of income. The Court of Appeal set aside the orders of the District Court and entered judgment for VNSW with costs. Why this case is important? The case confirms there is no obligation in negligence for owners and operators of public or private venues in NSW to have a handrail on every set of steps. It is also a welcome affirmation of the principles surrounding the assessment of breach of duty under s 5B and s 5C of the CLA, particularly in assessing whether precautions are required to be taken in response to hazards which are familiar and obvious to a reasonable person.

Published by Leighton Hawkes
18 August, 2023
Litigation and Dispute Resolution

Expert evidence – The letter of instruction and involvement of lawyers

The recent decision in New Aim Pty Ltd v Leung [2023] FCAFC 67 (New Aim) has provided some useful guidance in relation to briefing experts in litigation.

Published by Justin Pennay
10 August, 2023