Deepening Insolvency: An Emerging Threat? Legal Theory's Development Raises Liability Risks for Auditors

Article excerpt

EXECUTIVE SUMMARY

* Deepening insolvency is a relatively new end developing legal theory. Courts have disagreed about whether deepening insolvency is a stand-alone tort claim or simply a basis for seeking damages related to fraud, professional malpractice or another claim.

* If an auditor is alleged to have "missed" an accounting irregularity in an audit or the performance of other services, and eventually the company fails, a claim for deepening insolvency might be asserted.

* The core of the deepening insolvency theory is that an insolvent corporation and/or its creditors are harmed when a defendant fraudulently or negligently plays a role in increasing a corporation's debt and exposure to creditors, or in depleting its assets by artificially prolonging the corporation's life.

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As courts continue to expand theories for holding auditors liable to clients and third parties--particularly in connection with business failures---the concept of deepening insolvency is gaining prominence.

This article focuses on the issues raised by this emerging claim and on its ramifications for auditors. Courts have disagreed about whether deepening insolvency is a standalone tort claim or simply a basis for seeking damages related to fraud, professional malpractice or another claim. Indeed, there is some question about whether deepening insolvency should be a viable basis of recovery at all.

One thing is clear--deepening insolvency generally creates increased risk of exposure to legal action for audit professionals, particularly related to troubled businesses. In some cases, the theory may create additional scrutiny of the auditor's consideration, required by Statement on Auditing Standards no. 59, of an entity's ability to continue as a going concern.

In an ordinary negligence or fraud case, damages are limited to actual losses that the plaintiff suffers, often measured in lost profits, a decrease in asset values or in creased costs. The deepening insolvency theory seeks recovery for the expansion of corporate debt and the prolonged life of the corporation. But there have been few cases that recognize deepening insolvency as a cause of action rather than as a damages theory.

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Insolvency is generally understood, from a balance sheet perspective, as a financial condition such that the sum of the entity's debts is greater than the fair value of a company's assets. What deepening insolvency cases have also focused on, however, is cash flow insolvency--when a company incurs debt that would be beyond its ability to pay in future years--and low capital insolvency--when a company engages in a transaction or business that its capital base cannot support.

The phrase deepening insolvency appears to have had its origins in the mid-1980s in litigation concerning failed businesses. The AICPA has followed this controversial theory as it has been presented to various courts. In the case of Crowley v. Chait, (No. 06-2209) pending in the Third Circuit Court of Appeals, the AICPA filed a friend-of-the-court brief in support of PricewaterhouseCoopers LLP. The case involves an appeal by PricewaterhouseCoopers following a trial in New Jersey federal court relating to claims made against the audit firm after the insolvency of Ambassador Insurance Co.

The insurer's Vermont regulator asserted negligence claims on grounds that if the outside auditor had conducted a proper audit, the regulator would have learned that Ambassador was near insolvency and would have placed the company into receivership 20 months sooner. The AICPA argued against application of deepening insolvency damages on a claim for professional negligence.

THE COURTS' VIEWS

Recent court decisions demonstrate a lack of consistency in application and acceptance of this theory. For example, there is a debate whether deepening insolvency is a standalone claim or just another theory of damages for a negligence or fraud claim. …