Hospital Products Ltd v United States Surgical Corporation

Australian Equity & Trusts

Hospital Products Ltd v United States Surgical Corporation
‘Portrait of Niccolò Machiavelli’ by Santi di Tito

In a case embroiling both arms-length and personal agreements, the unavoidable overlapping of contract and equity are held to extensive scrutiny in a suit between corporations and individuals across two jurisdictions.

After an American surgical staple manufacturer entrusted their foreign sales to a New York salesman, the man whose reputation historically rested upon a handshake eventually used his informal approach to business to establish an overseas corporation, under which he manufactured his own version of the patented staples and promoted them to an Australian market via the prolific brand name used by his new business partners.

Upon discovery his underhand scheme, the now respondents sued for damages in the New South Wales Supreme Court under § 2-306(2) of the Uniform Commercial Code, which read that:

“A lawful agreement by either the seller or the buyer for exclusive dealing in the kind of goods concerned imposes unless otherwise agreed an obligation by the seller to use best efforts to supply the goods and by the buyer to use best efforts to promote their sale.”

While contesting that any sales accrued during the years accounted for were now held upon constructive trust for the respondents.

In the first instance, the court found that a fiduciary relationship had become evident when the respondents had entrusted their product in the appellant, therefore showing a unique vulnerability to his actions when working overseas, while under challenge before the Court of Appeal, the court supported the principle of a constructive trust and thus held accordingly.

Presented to the High Court of Australia, the question of trust relationships and contractual breach became central to the issue in hand, and so the court quickly noted that the contract rested upon verbal agreements and subsequent exchanges of correspondence, yet no legally binding agreements had been entered into; and so when examining the question of validity the court referred to Oscar Chess Ltd v Williams, in which the English Court of Appeal illustrated that a representation made during contractual negotiations could also be construed as a binding warranty, and so held that:

“The question whether a warranty was intended depends on the conduct of the parties, on their words and behaviour, rather than on their thoughts. If an intelligent bystander would reasonably infer that a warranty was intended, that will suffice.”

However the court also noted that in order for any implication of a warranty to sustain judicial scrutiny it must be:

  1. Reasonable and equitable
  2. Necessary so as to show that the contract would be useless without it
  3. So obvious to the bargain that it needs no expression
  4. Capable of clear expression if called upon
  5. Wholly supportive of the contract

And so moving on to the concept of fiduciary obligations arising from the heart of the working relationship, the court noted that in Reading v The King the English Court of Appeal held how:

“[A]‘fiduciary relation’ exists (a) whenever the plaintiff entrusts to the defendant property, including intangible property as, for instance, confidential information, and relies on the defendant to deal with such property for the benefit of the plaintiff or for purposes authorized by him, and not otherwise….and (b) whenever the plaintiff entrusts to the defendant a job to be performed, for instance, the negotiation of a contract on his behalf or for his benefit, and relies on the defendant to procure for the plaintiff the best terms available….”

Yet in vol. 25 of the University of Toronto Law Journal (1975) it also reads that in commercial dealings:

“[A] mere sub-contractor is not a fiduciary. Although his work may be described loosely as work which is to be carried out in the interests of the head contractor, the sub-contractor cannot in any meaningful sense be said to exercise a power or discretion which places the head contractor in a position of vulnerability.”

Therefore with little to warrant the existence of either a trust/trustee relationship or the presence of fiduciary duty with which to underline the machiavellian behaviour of the appellant, the court remitted the case back to the New South Wales Supreme Court with a view to an assessment of damages in favour of the respondents.

Chan v Zacharia

Australian Equity & Trusts

Chan v Zacharia
Image: ‘Doctor’s Office’ by Norman Rockwell

Matters of contract and the fiduciary elements of a working partnership, become at odds in a case involving opportunism with little regard to the details of the agreement signed when two former business partners acrimoniously part ways.

In 1979, two doctors agreed to set up a joint practice in an enviable part of Adelaide, and upon doing so, drafted a partnership agreement that established express terms around honourable working practices, and an ethical approach to the future of the enterprise. Sadly, as often happens in commercial relationships, the two men found working together intolerable, and so agreed to dissolve the practice.

One of the attractive features of the property was that of its location and the option to renew the lease for another two years, on the proviso that both partners were complicit in its execution. However, at the point of litigation, the appellant had shown clear reluctance to renew the lease, thus leaving the respondent no choice but to circumnavigate the matter as best as possible.

While the two parties had terminated the business, there was still a portion of the existing lease remaining, of which an equal share was held by both men, and yet in a strange turn of events, the landlord agreed to extend the lease to the appellant, and accordingly wrote to confirm this to the respondent. This prompted action by the respondent on grounds that the appellant had breached his fiduciary duty in accepting the new lease while inheriting the value of the interest of the existing lease, and that by doing so, he held the new lease as a constructive trustee on the equitable principle that the lease was an asset of the former partnership and therefore under a right of claim.

This contention was duly supported by the Supreme Court, at which point the appellant sought the wisdom of the High Court. Here, s.38 of the Partnership Act 1891 (SA) noted that:

“After the dissolution of a partnership the authority of each partner to bind the firm, and the other rights and obligations of the partners, continue, notwithstanding the dissolution, so far as may be necessary to wind up the affairs of the partnership, and to complete transactions begun but unfinished at the time of the dissolution, but not otherwise.”

While s.39 also stated how:

“On the dissolution of a partnership every partner is entitled, as against the other partners in the firm, and all persons claiming through them in respect of their interests as partners, to have the property of the partnership applied in payment of the debts and liabilities of the firm, and to have the surplus assets after such payment applied in payment of what may be due to the partners respectively after deducting what may be due from them as partners to the firm; and for that purpose any partner or his or her representatives may on the termination of the partnership apply to the Court to wind up the business and affairs of the firm.”

However, clause 26 of the partnership agreement clearly expressed that any surplus assets remaining after payment of debts, liabilities, expenses and amounts due to the partners, was to be divided equally through the execution of observation of all legal instruments and Acts, and the provisions contained therein.

This was the position adopted in Hugh Stevenson & Sons Ltd v Aktiengesellschaft Fur Cartonnagen-Industrie, where Romer LJ remarked:

“[W]herever the legal estate may be, whether it is in the partners jointly or in one partner or in a stranger it does not matter, the beneficial interest…belongs to the partnership, with an implied trust for sale for the purpose of realising the assets and for the purpose of giving to the two partners their interests when the partnership is wound up and an account taken…”

A fact that was equally present in clause 19 of the partnership agreement, which required each partner to:

“[D]evote his whole time (subject to annual leave) to the medical practice, to act in all things according to the highest standards of professional conduct and be just and faithful to the other partner in all transactions relating to the partnership…”

And so it was for these undeniable reasons, that the Court held (by majority) that when agreeing to and pursuing the opportunity to secure an extension of the lease after refusing to cooperate with his former partner, the appellant did, by virtue of his selfishness, breach what remained of his fiduciary capacity, and in doing so, became a constructive trustee for the value of the lease, and thus owed account to the respondent in kind.