D’Amato v. Badger – Complications Arising when the Plaintiff is a Business Partner
This article first appeared in the winter 1997 issue of the Expert Witness.
Some of the issues arising when an injured party had been a partner in a small business were recently discussed by the Supreme Court of Canada in D’Amato v. Badger,  8 W.W.R. 390 (S.C.C.). In that case, D’Amato had been one of two partners in an autobody repair shop. As a result of injuries suffered in an automobile accident, D’Amato’s ability to contribute to the operation of the business was severely and permanently restricted. D’Amato continued to provide some managerial services, but his primary services, as a skilled autobody repairman, had to be replaced with hired workers.
Nevertheless, between the time of D’Amato’s injury, in August 1987, and the trial, in March 1993, D’Amato’s partner, Namura, continued to pay D’Amato his pre-accident salary of $55,000 per year. Although the company recouped some of this payment from the services of replacement workers, the court found that the company’s profits were significantly lower during the pre-trial period than they would have been had D’Amato been healthy.
In this article, we wish to add to the analysis of the D’Amato decision by providing an economist’s perspective on the issues which were raised there. We do not, however, represent ourselves as experts on the legal doctrines which were discussed, in some detail, by the court.
Can a Company Claim When a Partner Is Injured?
Although the trial judge in D’Amato, Mr. Justice Vickers, awarded damages to D’Amato’s company, Arbor Auto Body, the Court of Appeal and the Supreme Court, ruled that the claim had to be made on behalf only of the injured partner. There was some suggestion from both of these courts that, as a public policy goal, claims from shareholders resulting from employee injuries should be discouraged (in order to encourage companies to insure themselves against such losses, and prevent frivolous claims). From an economist’s perspective, the critical factor in deciding whether or not a corporation (or partnership) suffers a loss when an employee is injured is simply whether or not that person’s labour can be replaced at constant cost. If the company can easily hire a replacement, or combination of replacements, who can produce identical business results at identical cost, then the company has suffered no loss at all. As this is almost always the case, few shareholder loss claims, for lost market share or profit, would succeed.
In practice, however, the business may incur additional costs associated with hiring and training and either lower quality or reduced productivity of replacement help. The loss claimed by Arbor (in particular the half of it claimed by Mr. D’Amato’s partner) was simply an attempt to recover an overpayment of salary relative to work provided, not an attempt to claim that the business was seriously impaired by Mr. D’Amato’s limitations.
In general, for medium-sized and larger companies, the employer’s loss in this type of case would be small, and the cost of putting forth a claim could be considerable, thereby limiting the number of claims. For a smaller business, however, any potential claim related to a loss of business volume would be greater, in a relative sense. It is quite plausible that the loss of a skilled technician like Mr. D’Amato could result in a loss of business, or that the added costs imposed on the company to find, train, and supervise replacement workers could be significant. As long as courts demand that the company in question provide firm evidence of any loss of business, or additional costs, then there would be no overcompensation. An additional factor which would create a tendency to modest awards is the short-term nature of this loss: Reputations can be re-established, training takes only so long, and hiring costs are a one-time item in most cases.
Should a Business Partner be Altruistic?
A complicating factor in D’Amato, which does not appear to have been considered explicitly by the Supreme Court, was that D’Amato’s partner continued to pay D’Amato his pre-injury salary after the injury, even though D’Amato’s productivity had been reduced significantly. According to Mr. Justice Vickers’ decision, D’Amato’s post-injury value to the company was only 25 percent of the salary which was paid to him. Had D’Amato been paid the actual value of his work, his pre-trial claim would have been roughly 75 percent of $55,000, or $41,250, per year. The business’ only losses, if any existed, would be from loss of volume, since customers would know Mr. D’Amato was not doing the work, or from the additional costs of hiring and training discussed above.
But Namura/Arbor did continue to pay D’Amato his pre-injury income. Hence, although the total loss which was incurred was the same as if Namura/Arbor had paid D’Amato only according to his post-accident productivity, the nexus of the loss was shifted – from D’Amato to Namura and Arbor. In spite of the fact that the total value of the loss was unaffected by this shift, the Court, by refusing to compensate Arbor for its overpayments to D’Amato, allowed the defendants to benefit from an altruistic act on the part of Namura.
From an economist’s perspective, if an injured employee’s compensation exceeds the value of his work in the open market, then restitutio requires that the excess amount paid will be claimable from the person who caused the injury. The difficulty is not in the principle, but in the details: it may not be instantly clear what the amount of the "overpayment" is. Replacement cost is one simple way to address the issue since, if the injured party is receiving his/her full prior salary, the cost of replacements represents the value of the services which the injured can no longer perform. Evaluation of replacement cost generally provides a reliable estimate of the employee’s decline in market value. When this overpayment has occurred, the correct redress is quite clear: the employer receives the amount by which the employee was overpaid, and the employee receives the amount they lost relative to his/her pre-accident level (so he/she receives nothing if the company continued to pay his/her full income).
An alternative view of the situation is that the overpayment provided by a partner (or any well-meaning employer) could be considered to be a gift or charitable donation and, hence, a form of collateral benefit, as receipt of the "gift" would not reduce the injured party’s claim. In that case, the replacement cost method should still be used to estimate the injured person’s true loss of income. Note that if a court judged annual pre-trial losses to be small, because the injured person received such benevolent overpayments, and based a future loss estimate on those artificially low figures, then the plaintiff’s loss could be seriously under-estimated, as the partner or employer is very unlikely to continue to overcompensate the plaintiff indefinitely. (This did not occur in Mr. D’Amato’s case, however, as the Court in that case implicitly assumed that Namura would cease to make overpayments after the trial.).
Furthermore, a finding by the Court that the plaintiff could be denied recovery if he had been "compensated" by his partner would send a strong signal to partners that they should refrain from assisting their colleagues when the latter had been injured. It does not seem likely to us that this is the signal which the Supreme Court intended to send, yet this is undeniably the signal which savvy partners will receive.
Two examples, based on D’Amato, will hopefully clarify these points. In both, we assume that, pre-accident, a partner in a business received compensation of $55,000 from the company for his physical and managerial labour, as full and fair compensation for those services. (The individual was also entitled to 1/2 of any business profit, as his return on capital. However, we ignore this as we assume that it is not affected by the injury.) After the accident, the injured party is able to contribute only the managerial component of the previous position, the market value of which contribution would approximate 25% of the pre-accident salary, or $13,750. In both cases, the total loss, $41,250, is identical. In both cases, as well, it is assumed that the business’ additional costs are limited to the cost of hiring replacement labour. Thus, the potential for a loss to the company, based on additional costs for hiring or training replacement labour, or decreased business volume due to loss of reputation, is not considered. The main point of difference between these cases concerns the post-accident compensation to the injured party, which results in different distributions of the total loss. If we assume that there are no other costs associated with hiring and training, and no loss of business due to loss of reputation, etc., then the financial position of the company is unchanged.
Case 1: Assume that the company pays the injured party only fair market value for his work, and that the balance of pre-accident salary of $41,250 (equivalent to $55,000 – $13,750) is paid to a replacement worker. Since other additional costs are not being considered here, it can be assumed that the financial position of the company remains unchanged. The injured person claims an annual loss of $41,250, from the dependant continuing into the future if the annual loss of income is not expected to change. Both the partner’s income and the injured person’s partnership income are also the same as prior to the injury.
Case 2: Assume the facts are as in Case 1, with one exception: the company continues to pay the full $55,000 per year to the injured employee, and therefore they are paying $41,250 "too much," in order to assist the injured. The replacement labour must still, of course, be hired. The injured person can claim no loss there, unless, as discussed above, the excess payment is viewed as a collateral benefit. Company profit will fall by $41,250, the additional labour expense which has been incurred. Each of the partners bears half of the total loss of profit of $41,250 per year, and the economic analysis suggests that the business should be able to claim that amount from the defendant. The "overpayment" of salary to the injured party, of $41,250, is mitigating income which, in our analysis, represents a loan which required compensation. Should the court find that this overpayment is not compensable, the company would incur a loss of $41,250 per annum – a loss which it could have avoided by refusing to compensate the injured party.
Some Additional Complications
The above examples only discuss one form of loss, the physical inability to work. The situation is more complex at times. For instance, the injured person’s skills may be unique and, hence, irreplaceable. All business profit earned on the activity in question is now lost, in addition to the person’s own income as an employee. If other revenue is contingent on the presence of the injured party (e.g. painting after autobody work), then losses could in principle occur on all of that revenue also. Yet this would be a rather unrealistic extreme, since few if any of us are virtually irreplaceable. It is more realistic to imagine that the loss of a senior and extremely skilled person, who has a reputation for superior work, would indeed cause some loss of business volume, in addition to a proportional loss in an associated field within the business. In Mr. D’Amato’s case, it is not hard to imagine that most senior technicians who could work at his level already would own their own shops, in partnerships or otherwise. They might not be enticed to work for Arbor by anything less than Mr. D’Amato’s base employee income and a profit share, if they would move at all.
Correct determination of loss in such a case would require accurately estimating the loss of volume and profit which has resulted from the absence of the injured person. This may be uncertain, given that other changes in the operating climate occur at the same time, but if industry statistics suggest the company did indeed lose revenue in relative terms, then the difference between predicted and actual revenue may in turn have caused a loss of profit. We still suggest that the entire loss should be recoverable, by both the injured party and all other shareholders. If the partner’s employee income falls, that should in principle be recoverable as well (though that loss would be much smaller, since it would be mitigated by the fact that the partner can still work at something, even if his/her most lucrative opportunity is foreclosed by the absence of the injured person).
A further difficulty with D’Amato, in all three judgments, is that there was no discussion of the components of the company’s estimated pre-trial loss of $73,299. This figure may be interpreted primarily as replacement costs, in which event the analysis in the two cases discussed above applies, and the loss is really just D’Amato’s loss mitigated by a loan from Namura. Or is a significant part of that figure the result of decreases in business volume? The suggestion, that the loss reflects replacement expenses, is never confirmed. The denial of 50 percent of the pre-trial award to Namura suggests that in either case, the BCCA believed the company could not recover its loss. We disagree, particularly in the first instance, since it seems quite unfair to artificially lower a loss estimate because the partner or employer provided assistance in the form of a loan after the injury. In the loss of profit situation, we would still argue that both loss of labour income (suffered by the partner), and net business profits (suffered by the injured and the partner) should be recoverable.
Finally, we note that the judgments in D’Amato remain puzzling numerically. The trial justice and the Supreme Court each concluded that Mr. D’Amato’s future loss was best valued at 3/4 of $55,000 per year, or $41,250. There was no suggestion of any significant worsening of his condition on or about the time of the initial trial. That suggests that his pre-trial loss was also approximately the same annual amount, yet the plaintiff’s accountant reached a total pre-trial loss of $73,299, or only about $13,000 per year (over roughly 5.5 years). Even assuming that all of the $73,299 is actually Mr. D’Amato’s loss of value of work, the gap between pre-trial and post-trial is very large. Assuming no major changes occurred in Mr. D’Amato’s condition, then either the pre-trial loss was seriously underestimated, the future loss overestimated, or some combination of the two. A more exact determination of the value of Mr. D’Amato’s post-accident labour would be required to reach the correct figures, and similarly an estimate of business volume lost, or other costs imposed, would be needed to deduce the loss suffered by the business, in addition to "losses" which are actually just loans to a partner.