There’s no doubt about it – we live in a litigious society where people get sued or sue someone themselves for the strangest reasons. Pick up any newspaper, and you’ll see what I mean. Take a look at these instances as examples of how weird (and imaginative) some people can be:
- Liebeck v. McDonald’s Restaurants, also known as the McDonald’s coffee case and the hot coffee lawsuit, was a highly publicised 1994 product liability lawsuit against the McDonald’s restaurant chain. The plaintiff, Stella Liebeck, a 79-year-old woman, suffered third-degree burns in her pelvic region when she accidentally spilt coffee in her lap after purchasing it from a McDonald’s restaurant. She was hospitalised for eight days while undergoing skin grafting, followed by two years of medical treatment. Liebeck sought to settle with McDonald’s for $20,000 to cover her medical expenses. When McDonald’s refused, Liebeck’s lawyer filed the claim in the US District Court for the District of New Mexico, accusing McDonald’s of gross negligence. Liebeck’s lawyers argued that McDonald’s coffee was defective at 180–190 °F (82–88 °C) and more likely to cause serious injury than coffee served at any other establishment. The jury found that McDonald’s was 80% responsible for the incident.
- In 2010, Lauren Rosenberg sued Google for $100,000 after Google Maps gave her walking directions to walk on a highway where she was hit by a car. She claimed that Google should have warned her that the route was unsafe for pedestrians.
- In 2010, a man from the village of Blaru, France, sued Google because a photo of him urinating in his garden appeared on Google’s Street View. The man was seeking damages for infringement of his privacy and a demand to remove the photo. He won the case, and Google was ordered to pay €1,000 in damages and €1,000 in court costs.
- Richard Harris, a British man (not the late actor), sued Guinness after he claimed to have lost his job from drinking too much of their beer. He sought £1 million for the “pain and suffering” it had caused him. The case was dismissed.
- A man from Ottawa, Canada, sued the Weather Network in 2013 for issuing an inaccurate forecast. He claimed he had experienced property damage because he had not been properly warned about a storm.
- In 2013, Faisal Sheri, a Mumbai-based director, filed a lawsuit against Bollywood superstar Shah Rukh Khan, claiming that he was the original dreamer of a “dream sequence” in the film “Om Shanti Om”. Sheri demanded compensation of Rs 50 lakh for the mental agony he suffered due to this.
As you can see, strange claims can and do happen everywhere. Remember, many of these cases were thrown out or settled out of court, but they certainly earned a place in the annals of legal history for their sheer oddness or, you might say, audacity by the claimant.
In this paper, I look at two issues:
- who is responsible if a members’ Club incurs an unexpected liability that exceeds its assets; and
- the steps that can be taken to protect the members.
If a members club is an unincorporated organisation, the liability for any debts or liabilities incurred would typically fall on its members personally. If the Club incurs an unexpected liability that exceeds its assets, the members, including the committee members, may be personally liable for the shortfall, without limit.
In an unincorporated organisation, there is no legal distinction between the Club and its members. An unincorporated association is not a legal person and cannot itself be sued (save for the rare exception where statute provides otherwise). This means the members’ personal assets could be at risk if the Club cannot meet its financial obligations. In such a situation, creditors or, in the context of this paper, a claimant for damages could seek payment from the personal assets of the Club’s members to satisfy the debts owed by the Club.
It’s important to note that personal liability may vary depending on the specific legal jurisdiction and any contractual agreements in place. It’s advisable to consult with a legal professional who can provide guidance tailored to the laws and regulations applicable to the members’ Club and the specific circumstances involved.
Is there a safeguard?
Converting to a legal structure that provides limited liability, such as a Company Limited by Guarantee, would help protect the members’ personal assets in case of unexpected liabilities that exceed the Club’s assets. This can be important for reducing personal risk and providing financial protection.
Converting from an Unincorporated Organisation to a Company Limited by Guarantee
If a members’ Club wants to convert from an unincorporated organisation (with unlimited personal liability exposure) to a Company Limited by Guarantee, how would it affect the Club’s existing committee? The answer is that converting from an unincorporated organisation to a Company Limited by Guarantee can have several implications for the current committee of an unincorporated Club.
Here are some key points to consider:
- Legal Status: By converting to a Company Limited by Guarantee, a Club would acquire a separate legal identity from its members. The Club would become a distinct legal entity, providing limited liability protection to its committee members. This means that the personal assets of committee members would generally be safeguarded in case of any liabilities incurred by the Club.
- Committee Responsibilities: As a Company Limited by Guarantee, the Club would have a new governance structure. The committee’s role and responsibilities may change, and additional legal obligations may arise. The committee members would usually become company directors and must fulfil their duties under company law, including acting in the best interests of the Club and its members.
- Legal and Regulatory Compliance: Converting to a Company Limited by Guarantee entails complying with various legal and regulatory requirements. This includes filing annual financial statements, maintaining company registers, and adhering to the provisions of the Companies Act. The committee would need to ensure that the Club fulfils these obligations to remain in compliance with the law.
- Decision-Making Processes: The decision-making processes within the Club may also be affected. As a Company Limited by Guarantee, certain decisions may require the approval of the members in a general meeting, subject to the Club’s articles of association. The committee would need to familiarise themselves with the new rules and procedures for decision-making and ensure transparency and compliance.
- Transition Process: Converting to a Company Limited by Guarantee involves several steps, including adopting new articles of association, registering with the appropriate authorities if required, and transferring assets and liabilities to the new entity. The Club committee would oversee this transition process, ensuring all necessary actions meet legal requirements.
Advantages of Limited Liability
Charities, community projects, clubs, societies, and similar organisations commonly use companies limited by guarantee. Most guarantee companies operate not-for-profit, meaning they do not exist to make profits. Drafting specialised articles is often a crucial task for such companies.
Why opt for a guarantee company?
The primary purpose of establishing a company limited by guarantee for the organisations mentioned above is to safeguard the individuals involved in its management from personal liability for the organisation’s debts. This functions similarly to when a business is structured as a company limited by shares.
If a charity, community project, Club, etc., is not registered as a limited company, the individuals responsible for its operations (usually the management committee or a similar body) can be held personally liable for any outstanding debts, which poses a genuine risk. Some charities, community groups, sports clubs, etc., can be substantial entities with financial obligations that are not easily resolved. They might own properties, employ staff, have equipment financed through contracts, and more. If the income generated is insufficient to cover these expenses, the organisation may become insolvent, and those managing it (though typically not the general members who are not part of the committee) can be held personally accountable for the deficit. This situation can arise due to unforeseen and unfortunate circumstances, such as an unexpected claim for personal injury.
In contrast, a company is a distinct legal entity, separate from its members, and is responsible for its own debts. In a company limited by shares, members’ liability is confined to the amount they have agreed to pay for their shares if the company becomes insolvent. In a company limited by guarantee, liability is limited to the specified amount outlined in the company’s articles, typically set at just £1.
The protection provided by a company limited by guarantee, safeguards personal assets and reduces individual risk in the event of unexpected liabilities. Committee members must adhere to company law, act in the best interests of the Club and its members, and ensure compliance with relevant regulations (see below).
Seeking professional advice is crucial in understanding these obligations and navigating the legal requirements involved in converting an unincorporated members’ Club to a company limited by guarantee.
Company Law Obligations
A summary of the company law obligations of the directors is as follows:
- Appointment and Resignation: Directors must be appointed by following the procedures outlined in the company’s articles of association. The appointment must be filed (that is, notified on the requisite form) with Companies House, the UK’s registrar of companies. Similarly, resignations must be reported to Companies House.
- Director Identification Number (DIN): Directors are required to obtain a unique Director Identification Number from Companies House.
- Duties and Responsibilities: Directors owe several statutory obligations, including promoting the company’s success, exercising reasonable care, skill, and diligence, avoiding conflicts of interest, and declaring any personal interests in company transactions.
- Fiduciary Duty: Directors must act in good faith to promote the company’s success and act in its best interests.
- Directors’ Report: Directors are responsible for preparing an annual directors’ report, which provides a fair review of the company’s performance, position, and future prospects. The report must be filed with the annual financial statements at Companies House.
- Financial Statements and Audit: Directors must ensure that the company’s financial statements are prepared in accordance with the applicable accounting standards and give a true and fair view of the company’s financial position. Small companies do not need an audit, but the accounts need to be in a required format. If the company is a micro-entity, it can prepare simpler accounts that meet statutory minimum requirements, submit only its balance sheet with less information to Companies House and benefit from the same exemptions available to small companies.
- Record-Keeping: Directors must maintain proper books and records, including registers of directors, members, and significant interests in company shares. These records should be kept at the company’s registered office or another location notified to Companies House.
- Company Meetings: Directors must attend board meetings and general meetings of the company as required. They may also be required to participate in decision-making processes by written resolution.
- Disclosure of Personal Information: Directors’ personal information, such as their name, residential address, and date of birth, must be disclosed to Companies House and made available to the public.
- Statutory Filings: Directors are responsible for ensuring that the company complies with various statutory filing requirements, including annual returns, confirmation statements, and changes to company details.
These are some general requirements, but it’s important to note that specific obligations and requirements may vary depending on the nature of the company, its size, and other factors. It’s advisable to consult the Companies Act 2006 and seek professional advice for detailed and up-to-date information regarding a director’s responsibilities and obligations in the UK.
Many Social Clubs operating as unincorporated organisations assume their risk exposure is so small it’s not worth worrying about. Take a look at the cases listed at the following links, and maybe you’ll think differently:
Sources and Further Reading
- © Some of the information above is derived from Government sources, and Crown Copyright is duly acknowledged.
- All pictures in this paper have been provided by Pexels.com.
CAUTION: This paper is compiled from the sources stated but has not been externally reviewed. IT IS NOT ADVICE. Parts of this paper include information provided via artificial intelligence which, although checked by the author, is not always accurate or reliable. Neither we nor any third parties provide any warranty or guarantee as to the accuracy, timeliness, performance, completeness or suitability of the information and materials covered in this paper for any particular purpose. Such information and materials may contain inaccuracies or errors and we expressly exclude liability for any such inaccuracies or errors to the fullest extent permitted by law. Your use of any information or materials on this website is entirely at your own risk, for which we shall not be liable. It shall be your own responsibility to ensure that any products, services or information available through this paper meet your specific requirements and you should neither take action nor exercise inaction without taking appropriate professional advice. The hyperlinks were current at the date of publication.
End Notes and Explanations
- Source: Compiled from research using information at the sources stated throughout the text, together with information provided by machine-generated artificial intelligence at: bing.com [chat] and https://chat.openai.com ↑
- Source: Michael McCann, William Haltom, and Anne Bloom, “Law & Society Symposium: Java Jive: Genealogy of a Juridical Icon”, 56 U. Miami L. Rev. 113 (October 2001), which describes the accident in detail. Cited at: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Liebeck_v._McDonald’s_Restaurants ↑