Category

Litigation

Lockdown! Nuisance Neighbours and How to Handle Them

By | Litigation, Property

“You can be a good neighbour only if you have good neighbours” (Howard E. Koch)

It looks as if we will still be under “restricted movement” orders for a while – even when we finally get down to Alert Level 2 and who knows when that will be. 

Tensions between neighbours are no doubt at an all-time high, and whether you are working from home or just trying to stay sane until our “new normal” starts kicking in, you are no doubt noticing more than ever all those little irritants from next door that would normally fly below your radar or at least be tolerable. 

And of course remember it’s a vice-versa situation – your neighbour is in exactly the same position. That’s a recipe for dispute, and going to war with a neighbour is a classic lose-lose option, in court or out of it. Any short-term victory you may think you can achieve will pale against the ongoing trench warfare that will inevitably result. 

First prize: A negotiated win-win

Negotiation will always be your best path to a win-win outcome, and whether you open up dialogue with a friendly chat over WhatsApp or a socially-distanced masks-on discussion over your boundary wall, here is one bit of advice that will substantially increase your chances of a happy outcome for everyone: Understand your legal rights before you start negotiating! 

Should your negotiations come to naught, consider as your next step mediation, arbitration or official intervention (more on possible municipal or police intervention options below). Remember that if you live in a “community scheme” such as a sectional title development or a Homeowners’ Association community, the CSOS (Community Schemes Ombud Service) provides a dispute resolution service to assist with a wide range of community disputes.

Then – and this should normally be your last option only to be resorted to when all other avenues have failed – you have the legal route, normally in the form of an interdict application and/or damages claim. 

How can our law help you? It’s a balancing act…

The principles laid down by our courts in dealing with neighbour disputes over many years are firmly rooted in common sense. You are entitled to the use and enjoyment of your property – so long as you act lawfully – without unreasonable interference. “An interference” our courts have held, “will be unreasonable when it ceases to be a ‘to-be-expected-in-the-circumstances’ interference and is of a type which does not have to be tolerated under the principle of ‘give and take, live and let live’.”  

As the Supreme Court of Appeal (SCA) put it in 2016: “Nuisance involves the unreasonable use of property by one neighbour to the detriment of another.” It’s a balancing act between competing rights – yours and those of the other property owners around you. 

Peacocks, a cherry tree, and the court’s wide discretion

It is also difficult to set out too much in the way of hard and fast rules here, for as our courts have put it “modern conditions require the exercise of a wide discretion in the adjustment of neighbour relationships”. 

Thus the High Court, in a 2013 case involving nuisance peacocks, a “much loved” cherry tree on the boundary of two properties and in danger of being chopped down, and a partially-demolished boundary wall, both quoted and applied that principle with an order encapsulating a resolution of the neighbourly disputes in a detailed and pragmatic manner. The peacocks for example had made a major nuisance of themselves by being noisy, messy and destructive trespassers (they had damaged expensive vehicles by pecking at them when they saw themselves reflected in the rear-view mirrors and highly polished metal surfaces). The court order included both authority for them to be removed by either the municipality or by the SPCA (there being no municipal permit to keep them as required by the municipality’s bye-laws), and an admonition to find them “good and lawful homes”. The cherry tree on the other hand is now protected by an interdict against its removal, with detailed instructions in the court order as to the reconstruction of the boundary wall next to it.

Bear in mind therefore that what is said below is of necessity a simplified and brief summary only – every case will be different, our courts will take into account a whole range of factors in deciding a dispute, and in many instances technical questions of “wrongfulness”, “fault”, “moving to the nuisance” and so on may apply. If your dispute gravitates towards legal action, specific advice is essential!

What is a “nuisance”?

The range of potential disputes falling into the “neighbour law” and “nuisance” categories is wide. Some examples (from the SCA again – emphasis supplied) – “repulsive odours, smoke and gases drifting over the plaintiff’s property from the defendant’s land, water seeping onto the plaintiffs property, leaves from the defendant’s trees falling onto the plaintiff’s premises, slate being washed down-river onto a plaintiff’s land, causing a disturbing noise, causing a common wall to become unstable by piling soil up against it, overhanging branches and foliage, an electrified fence on top of a communal garden wall, blue wildebeest transmitting disease to cattle on neighbouring ground, and occupants of structures on neighbouring land allegedly causing a nuisance.” 

Two common areas of dispute – noise and trees

Let’s have a closer look at how those general principles have been applied to two of the more common areas of dispute –

  1. Noise: If barking dogs, power tools, loud music or the like are making your life a misery – keeping you awake at night perhaps, or (a common concern in this time of remote working) unable to concentrate on that business project or to participate in your daily Zoom “office” meeting – sooner or later you will need to take action.

    Particularly relevant here are the various national statutes and local bye-laws dealing with noise pollution. Contact your local municipality or the police for help if you need to. If you live in a complex, Body Corporate or Home Owners Association rules and regulations will probably come into play as well. SAPS should respond to serious violations of our anti-noise laws, and just a warning visit from a blue uniform might solve your problem once and for all. 

    If you end up in a legal fight, our courts will take into account factors such as “the type of noise, the degree of its persistence, the locality involved and the times when the noise is heard”. As we said above, every case will be different.  

  2. Trees: If your neighbour’s trees are damaging your property (common complaints relate to boundary walls, underground pipes, building foundations, driveways and the like), or are causing a nuisance in the form of falling leaves or branches, or are blocking your views/depriving you of light, you are once again left with no hard and fast rules. A court will look at what is “objectively reasonable” in all the circumstances. As a general rule, don’t count on much sympathy from a court if damage is minor and easily repaired, if the nuisance caused is controllable by you with regular maintenance (clearing leaves from gutters and so on) or if your only complaint is loss of your views. That last aspect is a whole separate debate with many twists and turns, but all based on the concept that you will have no automatic right to a view.   

    Where you are dealing with an “overhanging branches” issue, old common law principles will usually apply unless factors such as local bye-laws, heritage protection of older trees etc come into play. You will generally have a right to cut overhanging branches back to your property line if the neighbour refuses to do so and to keep or dispose of the branches if your neighbour declines to take them. 

Disclaimer: The information provided herein should not be used or relied on as professional advice. No liability can be accepted for any errors or omissions nor for any loss or damage arising from reliance upon any information herein. Always contact your professional adviser for specific and detailed advice.

© LawDotNews

Leases, Contracts and COVID-19: What is Force Majeure?

By | Contract, Litigation, Property

The COVID-19 crisis has changed everything. Our personal lives have been upended and our businesses hit hard. 

And with many businesses operating out of leased premises, a great many landlords and tenants are asking themselves what happens if the crisis leaves a tenant unable to pay the agreed rental. 

What follows is of necessity a general guide only – professional advice specific to your case is essential here.

Tenants – your risk

As always “With Great Change comes Great Opportunity”, but if you aren’t able to very quickly find and exploit a viable new opportunity you may well struggle to pay your rental. 

Don’t just stop paying rental! Failing to pay rental on time means breaching your lease, and if you do that you face cancellation, legal action for recovery of outstanding rental, damages claims for breach (substantial if your lease has a long time to run and your landlord struggles to re-let) and calling up of your personal suretyships (exposing you to loss of all your personal assets, house etc). 

Bottom line – take professional advice before you just stop paying!

Landlords – your balancing act

As a landlord you have a very delicate balancing act – on the one hand you won’t want to lose even half-reasonable tenants at a time when finding new ones is going to be problematic. One wonders for example how many small businesses will now either fail entirely or be forced to cut costs. And how many others, having had an enforced period of “working from home”, will now be reconsidering the whole concept of leasing separate office space at all. 

On the other hand of course you need to cover your ongoing costs, which probably means enforcing payment of rent. That in turn means understanding your legal position – for example does your tenant now have an excuse to cancel the lease without penalty? If so, you lose a tenant without recompense. But if your tenant is still bound by the lease, you are free (if you wish – long-term support of your tenant may still be your best option) to demand full payment, then to reduce your losses by cancelling, evicting, executing against the tenant’s assets and calling up personal suretyships. 

What about “force majeure” or “impossibility of performance”? 

Force majeure” (a French legal term meaning “superior force”) is an event, either due to “natural causes” (earthquakes, cyclones and so on) or to “human agency” (war, riots, legislation and the like) that makes it impossible to comply with the lease. 

We really are sailing into uncharted waters here with worldwide debate over whether or not this pandemic is indeed a case of force majeure. There is bound to be a great deal of litigation before we can be certain whether or not the crisis (particularly the declaration of a national state of disaster and the lockdown period) will be accepted by our courts as a “force majeure” event. If it is, many tenants will argue that their failure to pay rental is not a breach of lease but rather a lease-destroying “supervening impossibility of performance”. 

So where do you stand? There are two main scenarios to consider –

  1. What does the lease say? The onus of proving a force majeure is on the tenant trying to escape from the lease, and the first thing for both parties to check is what the lease says.

    Many leases have a clause that deals with a tenant’s inability to occupy premises as a result of damage to or destruction of the premises which won’t apply here, but some leases do have specific force majeure clauses. If yours has such a clause you are bound by whatever it says so check whether a pandemic or government order to cease business might fall under the clause, and if so what results and remedies are specified.

  2. What must the tenant prove if there is nothing in the lease? If there is no force majeure clause in your lease, our common law applies. Your problem here is that there are a lot of grey areas involved and every case will be different, so what follows is just a general and non-exhaustive guide.  

    A tenant would have to prove not only that the impossibility caused a loss of beneficial occupation (entitling the tenant perhaps to a rebate of rental for the lockdown period, or perhaps frustrating the lease altogether) but in all probability also that it is –

  • “Unforeseeable with reasonable foresight”. In this regard we may well hear arguments along the lines of “the emergence of the coronavirus and its impacts were neither unexpected nor improbable”. Could such an argument prevail? Only time will tell.   
  • “Unavoidable with reasonable care”. 
  • An absolute as opposed to a probable impossibility. “The mere likelihood that performance will prove impossible is not sufficient to destroy the contract.” 
  • An absolute not a relative impossibility. “If I promise to do something which, in general, can be done, but which I cannot do, I am liable on the contract”.   
  • Not the fault of either party. “A party who has caused the impossibility cannot take advantage of it and so will be liable on the contract.”   
  • The “contrary common intention of the parties” could override the defence of impossibility. Consider any representations made by either party to the other that may be relevant.

Moreover our courts have held that “In each case it is necessary to ‘look to the nature of the contract, the relation of the parties, the circumstances of the case, and the nature of the impossibility invoked by the defendant, to see whether the general rule ought, in the particular circumstances of the case, to be applied’.”

That’s all fertile ground for expensive and draining litigation, at a time when neither of you is likely to have an appetite for either. 

Which brings us to…

A practical template for negotiation

Take this advice from Roman lawyer and statesman Cicero over two millennia ago: “Agree, for the law is costly”. 

So if you are a tenant, rather than just stopping rental payments and then having to fight it out through the legal system, ask your landlord to agree to a win-win compromise that will limit both short-term and long-term damage to your respective businesses.

Draw up a checklist including matters such as –

  • Do you or your landlord have any sort of insurance cover for this sort of disaster?
  • If you want to cancel the lease entirely, consider whether, if the protections of the Consumer Protection Act are available to you (see below*) it might pay you to give your 20 business days’ notice and pay the “reasonable cancellation penalty” the landlord is entitled to demand. (*You need to take advice on this – leases between “juristic persons” such as companies and trusts in particular are excluded from this particular protection).
  • Alternatively consider what you can offer the landlord to accept your cancellation without a fight. 
  • If you want to continue in the premises, make sure that your failure to pay on time is specifically recorded as not being a breach of the lease.
  • Decide whether you will ask for a full rental holiday, or a rental reduction. For how long? The better a tenant you have been, the more incentivized your landlord is going to be to help you stay in place. Offering an extension of the lease – if it ties in with your long-term planning – could help a lot with that.
  • If you run into a brick wall there, think of proposing that the arrears not be written off but rather just be deferred until your business is back up on its feet. Specify when payment of arrears will be made, what if any interest will be charged and so on.
  • If the tenant is a corporate entity and you signed a personal suretyship for it, don’t forget to specifically cover that aspect in your agreement. 
  • Remember to include in your agreement what happens to any deposit the landlord may be holding from you.
  • If you agree on a new or amended lease, think of including a professionally-drawn force majeure clause (or check an existing clause for possible update). 
Beyond leases – force majeure and contracts generally

Although this article specifically addresses landlords and tenants, the general principles of “force majeure” and “impossibility of performance” apply to all contracts and might in some cases entitle you to delay or avoid contractual obligations beyond lease agreements. Take professional advice specific to your circumstances!

Disclaimer: The information provided herein should not be used or relied on as professional advice. No liability can be accepted for any errors or omissions nor for any loss or damage arising from reliance upon any information herein. Always contact your professional adviser for specific and detailed advice.

© LawDotNews

Running a Business in a Residential Area – Check Your Zoning First!

By | Litigation, Property

“It is unquestionable that an owner of land is not permitted to perform activities which contravene the restrictive title conditions or the zoning restrictions” (extract from judgment below)

You decide to open a home business, or perhaps you are about to buy a house in order to run a business from it. You apply for rezoning but the council is taking forever to decide (although it has happily started charging you rates and taxes on the business tariff), your immediate neighbours are supportive, you won’t cause any nuisance, you know of many other businesses operating undisturbed “under the radar”, and anyway the suburb’s residential character has been eroding for years. Surely you are safe to just go ahead and open your business?

On the other side of the coin, perhaps you bought your dream house in a leafy suburb, secure in the knowledge that its residential character is protected by strong and effective zoning laws. Then businesses start moving in – what can you do about it?

A recent High Court decision addresses both questions directly…

A suburban office and the interdict application
  • A construction company opened an administrative office in a suburban area, manned from 8 am to 4.30 pm on weekdays by a staff of four (with the occasional visitor). 
  • Three complainants in the suburb, objecting strongly to this move, applied to the High Court for an interdict against the running of any business on the property. They had, they said “acquired their properties with a keen expectation of residing in a residential suburb with amenities that are consistent with a residential suburb and with a residential character” – sentiments which will no doubt resonate with many other home-buyers.
  • Critically, one of the restrictive conditions in the offending property’s title deeds read “this erf shall be used for residential purposes only and no trade or business or industry whatsoever shall be conducted thereon”. That, said the Court, rendered the property’s usage illegal. Full stop.
All the defeated defences

The property owner and the business (let’s refer to them together as “the business” for simplicity) raised a series of defences to the interdict application, all of them rejected by the Court on essentially the same ground that “the use or continuation to use the property for any business or trade other than for residential purposes constitutes an illegal act” 

  • The suburb’s character had been changing over the years with businesses moving in, including a large shopping mall. Not relevant.
  • The business had applied to the local council for re-zoning and removal of the title deed restriction over a year before, no objections had been received and it had in fact been supported by at least one neighbour. Not relevant.
  • Although the rezoning application had yet to be granted or declined, council was already collecting rates and taxes payable by business and commercial properties. Not relevant.
  • The office caused no nuisance to anyone in the area. Not relevant.
  • Other property owners in the area were also in contravention of the law. Not relevant.
Who can object and who can’t?

The business also argued that only property owners living “in close proximity” to the office had any right to object. That, it said, excluded not only the complainant who was not an owner (she lived with her parents) but all three of the complainants because they all lived about a kilometer away from the office. 

No problem, said the Court, “the essence of town planning schemes is conceived in the interest of the community to which it applies” and the complainants lived “in an area affected by an applicable zoning scheme”. All the complainants had “protectable interests” and therefore locus standi (in plain English, the ‘right to bring a legal action’) and were entitled to enforce their rights under the planning scheme.

The interdict and the request to suspend it

“Once it is accepted”, quoted the Court from an earlier judgment “that the nature of the right in question is a public right, then it must follow … that for continuing infringements of that right the only effective remedy is an interdict, all the more so where such infringements amount to an offence.” Final interdict granted with costs.

Finally, the Court rejected a request by the business to suspend the application of the interdict. The business had been continuing to act in an unlawful manner for at least fifteen months, it was “hell-bent to do so without the necessary relaxation of the restrictive conditions” and to suspend the interdict would be to support or give approval “to an ongoing illegality which is also a criminal offence … tantamount to the subversion of the doctrine of legality and undermining of the rule of law”. The business “must be brought into line immediately when such matters are brought to the attention of the court.” Interdict effective immediately.

Owners – must you always rezone?

Have your attorney check what title deed restrictions your property is subject to, what your current zoning is and what it allows and doesn’t allow. Your local town planning scheme may perhaps let you run a small scale “home enterprise” or “micro business” either without any municipal consent (there will be conditions attached) or with a municipal permit. Or you may need to formally apply for rezoning and removal of title deed restrictions. Every local authority will have its own rules on this and the important thing is to comply with them or risk unhappy neighbours applying to close you down.

Disclaimer: The information provided herein should not be used or relied on as professional advice. No liability can be accepted for any errors or omissions nor for any loss or damage arising from reliance upon any information herein. Always contact your professional adviser for specific and detailed advice.

© LawDotNews

Your Written Contract Should Cover Everything – No Oral Evidence Allowed!

By | Contract, Litigation

Here’s another warning from our courts to make sure that all your contracts are properly drawn to reflect both accurately and fully what you have agreed to.

The problem with leaving anything out – or agreeing to something that isn’t then fully recorded in your contract – is a principle in our law known as “the rule of parol evidence”. 

A recent SCA (Supreme Court of Appeal) decision illustrates the rule in action, and the facts will resonate with the many farmers, businesses and city dwellers facing empty dams in drought-stricken areas…

The water diviner and the “insufficiently yielding” borehole

  • A fruit farm/wine estate accepted a quote from a contractor to drill a borehole.
  • The contractor, having successfully used his water divining skills and over 20 years’ experience to locate a good drilling spot, quoted to drill on the basis of his standard “No Water, No Pay” policy. The farm accepted the quote with a modification requiring a drill to 70m (or 100m if no water was found at 70).
  • The resultant 76m deep borehole yielded some 4,000 litres of water per hour – something which, as the Court put it, “would put a smile on the face of most farmers in this country”. 
  • Nevertheless, and despite the borehole “gaily being used by the [farm] to irrigate its orchards”, the farm refused to pay the drilling contractor a cent, arguing that the water yield was insufficient to meet the contractor’s agreed obligations.
  • One long (and no doubt expensive) legal battle through the courts later, the fight ended up before the SCA.
  • One of the farm’s defences to the claim (and the one relevant to this article) was its (hotly denied) insistence that the contractor had guaranteed a minimum water supply of 10,000 litres per hour.  

Oral evidence disallowed – it’s the written contract that counts

  • Bad defence, said the Court. A guarantee of water yield “is not what the agreement says, and to find that there was agreement on such a guarantee would breach the rule of parol evidence which prescribes that where the parties to a contract have reduced their agreement to writing, it becomes the exclusive memorial of the transaction; and no evidence may be led to prove its terms other than the document itself, nor may the contents of the document be contradicted, altered, added to or varied by oral evidence.” (Emphasis supplied). 
  • On that basis “the considerable volume of evidence led by both sides in regard to their negotiations and what their intention had been was all clearly inadmissible”. All that mattered was that the contract specified that payment was due if the borehole produced water and wasn’t “dry” – its actual yield was irrelevant.
  • The farm also tried to rely on the “partial integration rule” whereby, when a contract is partially written and partially oral, evidence can be led to prove the oral part of the agreement. But, held the Court, that rule cannot be used to “contradict or vary the written portion” of the agreement – which is exactly what the farm was trying to do. 
  • End of that argument, so the farm must pay its borehole bill in full, plus legal costs.

The bottom line – make sure your contracts cover everything both clearly and comprehensively!

Disclaimer: The information provided herein should not be used or relied on as professional advice. No liability can be accepted for any errors or omissions nor for any loss or damage arising from reliance upon any information herein. Always contact your professional adviser for specific and detailed advice.

© LawDotNews

How Courts Sort Fact from Fiction – A Tale of Jags, Deception and Damages

By | Delict and Civil Claims, Litigation

“Truth will out” (Shakespeare)

You are wondering whether you can win in court against an opponent where your two versions of what happened are totally at odds with each other. 

How will a judge decide where the truth lies? It’s an important question because even though you know you are telling the truth, the court must base its decision on the evidence put before it. In other words, whether or not Shakespeare’s “Truth will out” will apply to your court case is going to depend on what evidence you have, and on how you present it. 

A recent damages claim for fraudulent misrepresentation illustrates…

Selling R320k worth of Jaguar XF as a R1m XFR

  • A dealership (owned by a close corporation) sold a “Jaguar XFR” to a buyer, who financed the purchase through a bank at a price of R985,139-29. Legally the sale was from the dealership to an intermediary, which then sold the vehicle on to the bank, which then sold it to the buyer on instalment sale.
  • When the buyer failed to make payments due under the instalment sale agreement, the bank seized the vehicle from him. In the process it became aware that it was in fact a Jaguar XF, not the XFR reflected in all the documentation.
  • That made a big difference to the bank because a Jaguar XFR5.0 V8 S/C is, the Court was told, a very different beast from its cousin the XF5.0 V8. What was most relevant to this case was that “the Jaguar XF is a considerably cheaper kind of Jaguar vehicle than the Jaguar XFR”. 
  • The bank cancelled its agreement with the intermediary on the grounds of misrepresentation and the intermediary had to repay the R985k to the bank.
  • The intermediary then in turn tried to recover its losses from the dealership, which however refused to pay back a cent and refused to accept return of the vehicle. To reduce its losses, the intermediary sold the XF on for R275k, after which it sued the dealership for its net loss of R710k.
  • The two versions of events given by the dealership and the intermediary were irreconcilable and the factual evidence heard by the Court was an interesting and complex mix of allegedly forged signatures, unsigned documents, the mysterious addition of an “R” badge to the vehicle, and a disclosure that the dealership had bought the vehicle for R320k just days before on-selling it for R985k. 

How did the Court decide?

  • The Court followed “the technique generally employed by courts in resolving such factual disputes” which it summarised as (format supplied):   

    “To come to a conclusion on the disputed issues a court must make findings on –

    1. The credibility of the various factual witnesses; 
    2. Their reliability; and 
    3. The probabilities.”
  • Those three factors are of course closely inter-linked, and the Court’s assessment of them will lead it to decide whether whichever party bears the onus of proving a fact or facts has succeeded in doing so. There’s a clear blueprint there for any litigant wondering whether their version of events is likely to be accepted as fact, or rejected as fiction.
  • In this case, the “We did nothing wrong” evidence given for the dealership by the close corporation’s member and ex-member was rejected by the Court, which referred to both the general probabilities and to several important changes of story both on the papers and on the witness stand with comments like “…had to change his version drastically during cross-examination as to how the transaction came about…”. 
  • The end result – the Court found that the member had made a misrepresentation, knowing that it was false, that the vehicle was a Jaguar XFR and not a Jaguar XF. The ex-member was found co-responsible for the fraudulent misrepresentation and all three (member, ex-member and dealership) held jointly and severally liable for damages of R710,139-29 plus interest and costs. 

Disclaimer: The information provided herein should not be used or relied on as professional advice. No liability can be accepted for any errors or omissions nor for any loss or damage arising from reliance upon any information herein. Always contact your professional adviser for specific and detailed advice.

© LawDotNews

How to Stop Vital Evidence Being Destroyed

By | Litigation

“Surprise the enemy” (Sun Tzu in ‘Art of War’)

You suspect that someone you are suing (or about to sue) will destroy or hide vital evidence in their possession. Perhaps by shredding documents or deleting electronic records supporting your case, or perhaps by spiriting away computer hard drives full of incriminating information. You fear that if they get away with it your case will be dead, or at least compromised.

Fortunately our law has a strong and quick remedy for you – the “Anton Piller” order, by means of which the High Court can authorise a search for, and a seizure into safekeeping of, the relevant evidence until trial.

Surprise raids and fishing expeditions 

This is a drastic and draconian remedy.  For obvious reasons this is a “surprise raid” on the other party – giving advance notice to the other party of your court application would defeat the whole object. 

Which means that the other party suffers an unannounced and substantial invasion of its privacy, leading to all sorts of disruption and potential damage to its business. 

Which is why our courts have laid down strict requirements that you must comply with before you will be granted an order. A recent Supreme Court of Appeal (SCA) decision illustrates –

  1. A developer and seller of computer software wanted to sue a company it had dealt with for damages on the basis of alleged breaches of contract and for unlawful competition. It obtained in the High Court an Anton Piller order giving access to the Deputy Sheriff, independent attorneys and forensic specialists to search and seize “documents specified in the order, computer equipment or any other storage devices”. This order was subsequently set aside and the developer, attempting to have the order re-instated, approached the SCA for leave to appeal.
  2. The Court in refusing leave to appeal analysed and applied the requirements for an order to preserve evidence under three main headings. You must establish (prima facie, in other words “on first appearance” but not definitively at this stage) the following –
    • That you have a cause of action against the other party, which you intend to pursue. The developer had, said the Court, established this.
    • That the other party has in its possession “specific documents or things which constitute vital evidence in substantiation of [your] cause of action…”  This, said the Court, required the developer to “identify the documents it sought to preserve with the necessary degree of specificity”. A “blanket search for unspecified documents or evidence, which may or may not exist, is not permitted”. You have to be specific.

      The major flaw in the developer’s case was, said the Court, its failure in its affidavits to identify or specify which vital information was in possession of [the other party] that needed to be preserved. It proposed a “keyword” search to be used in searching the whole of the other party’s data base that was “invasive and a trawling expedition through every aspect of [the other party]’s business” including sensitive and confidential information to which it could not be entitled.

    • That you have a “well-founded apprehension that this evidence may be hidden or destroyed or in some manner spirited away by the time the case comes to trial…” But in this case, said the Court, the developer had failed to show that the other party was untrustworthy or dishonest, plus it had “failed to set out any factual basis for an objective conclusion to be reached of the well-founded and reasonable apprehension that evidence would be concealed.”
  3. This particular order, held the Court, “involves a departure from the basic premise upon which Anton Piller orders are granted, namely that they are to preserve evidence, not search for it”, whilst its execution was “nothing but a fishing expedition” (emphasis added). The software developer could not succeed in re-instating its Anton Piller order.  

Disclaimer: The information provided herein should not be used or relied on as professional advice. No liability can be accepted for any errors or omissions nor for any loss or damage arising from reliance upon any information herein. Always contact your professional adviser for specific and detailed advice.

© LawDotNews

Business Rescue: Are Your Suretyships Enforceable? A R5.5m Lesson for Directors and Creditors

By | Company / Corporate / Compliance, Insolvency / Liquidation, Litigation

“Some people use one-half their ingenuity to get into debt, and the other half to avoid paying it” (George Prentice, newspaper editor and author)

You are owed a lot of money by a company that goes into business rescue. The business rescue plan provides for creditors like you to accept a dividend of only a few cents in the Rand in settlement of your debt. You stand to lose heavily.

But perhaps there’s hope yet – a director with assets has signed personal suretyship. Can the director now say “sorry, you adopted the business rescue plan so your claim no longer exists”, and refuse to pay you? 

The directors’ defence
  • A creditor was owed R6.5m for the lease of mining equipment to a company which was placed under business rescue. In terms of a business rescue plan approved by the creditor it was paid only a portion of its claim, losing its right to claim anything further from the debtor company.
  • The two directors of the debtor had signed a deed of suretyship in terms of which they stood as co-sureties and co-principal debtors with their company for all amounts owing.
  • The creditor duly sued the directors for its shortfall of some R5.5m The directors’ defence was that they were not liable because – 
    • The suretyship entitled the creditor to go after them only for “any sum which after the receipt of such dividend/s or payment/s may remain owing by the Debtor.” (Own underlining). 
    • Nothing remained owing by the debtor which had been released from its debt by the business rescue plan.
  • In other words, argued the directors, nothing was owed by the debtor company, so they were liable for nothing. 

  • Not so, said the Court. That “would render the terms of the deed of suretyship nonsensical and militates against the very reason for a creditor obtaining security against the indebtedness of a debtor i.e. to mitigate the risk of the debtor being unable to fulfil its obligations due to inter alia business rescue.” The business rescue plan made no provision for the position of sureties and therefore “the liability of the sureties is in my view preserved.  And while the debt may not be enforceable against [the company], it does not detract from the obligation of the sureties to pay in the circumstances of this case.” In other words, a surety’s liability is unaffected by the business rescue unless the plan itself makes specific provision for the situation of sureties.
  • Bottom line – the directors must personally cough up the R5.5m (plus interest and costs).
Lessons for directors and creditors

The outcome here could have been very different had the wording of either this particular suretyship or the business rescue plan supported the directors’ defence.

Creditors – when securing your claim with a director’s suretyship check that you are fully covered in any form of business failure situation.  And ensure that a business rescue plan specifically provides that its adoption does not release sureties. 

Directors – when you sign personal surety understand exactly what you are letting yourself in for. And if you are unlucky enough to find yourself in the middle of a business rescue, actively manage your personal liability danger – particularly when it comes to the wording of the rescue plan.

Disclaimer: The information provided herein should not be used or relied on as professional advice. No liability can be accepted for any errors or omissions nor for any loss or damage arising from reliance upon any information herein. Always contact your professional adviser for specific and detailed advice.

© LawDotNews

Your Website of the Month: Coming Soon – More Courts Offering Mediation Options

By | Litigation, Website of the Month

“Agree, for the law is costly” (wise old proverb)

The cost, delay and risk of contested litigation sometimes makes it sensible to rather try to resolve a dispute with mediation. Ask your lawyer for advice on whether your dispute is a suitable one, and if so be aware that in addition to the option of existing “private” mediation, you can refer a dispute to “court-annexed” mediation at selected magistrate’s courts around the country, either before or during a trial. 

The list of courts offering mediation options expands greatly on 1 July 2019 – see the full list here

Disclaimer: The information provided herein should not be used or relied on as professional advice. No liability can be accepted for any errors or omissions nor for any loss or damage arising from reliance upon any information herein. Always contact your professional adviser for specific and detailed advice.

© LawDotNews

Accidentally Paid the Wrong Person? Lessons From a R862k Banking App Error

By | Delict and Civil Claims, General Interest, Litigation

“There’s no such thing as a free lunch” (Economist Milton Friedman)

In these days of online banking and electronic payment, it’s not uncommon to find out to your horror that you have made a payment to someone in error, either to the wrong recipient or in an incorrect amount. If that happens to you and the recipient refuses to pay you back, what can you do about it?

The other side of the coin of course is whether the recipient of an unexplained and unexpected bank account credit can safely go ahead and spend the windfall (the answer in a nutshell is very strong “no” – if there are indeed any free lunches in the world, this is unlikely to be one of them!).

A recent High Court judgment sets out the requirements for a claim based on “unjustified enrichment”.

A banking app duplicates payments of R861,940
  • A couple were the happy beneficiaries of a malfunction in their bank’s “remote banking” app.
  • In effect they received duplicate transfers into their two accounts totalling R861,940 
  • The bank duly sued them for return of the money on the basis that they had been “unjustifiably enriched” at its expense.
  • Initially the couple denied that any duplication had taken place, but at trial they dropped their denial, claiming instead to have repaid the bank in cash.
  • The husband’s story was that he had paid a bank employee, since deceased, who had put the cash into a safe “in case a claim was made”. He was unable to say how much money had been handed over, he could not give dates, and no receipts were requested or given. Nevertheless his evidence was accepted by the trial court and the bank’s claim failed.
  • However on appeal to a “full bench” (a “full court” of three High Court judges, sometimes more), the husband’s version was rejected as “inherently improbable”, and the couple was ordered to repay the bank together with interest and legal costs.  
What must you prove?

The requirements for an unjustified enrichment claim are –

  1. The recipient has in fact been enriched by receiving the money (it needn’t be money, it could for example be an asset of some sort)
  2. You have been “impoverished” by the transfer
  3. The recipient’s enrichment was at your expense
  4. The enrichment was legally unjustified.

Once the couple admitted receiving the money without a legal basis, held the Court, the onus shifted to them to prove that there was no enrichment. So their failure to prove repayment was the end of their case. 

Don’t despair if the facts of your case don’t tie in fully with the above requirements – our law may have other remedies for you. Ask your lawyer for help.

Disclaimer: The information provided herein should not be used or relied on as professional advice. No liability can be accepted for any errors or omissions nor for any loss or damage arising from reliance upon any information herein. Always contact your professional adviser for specific and detailed advice.

© LawDotNews

Employers: When Should You Sue Rogue Employees? A R33m Example

By | Employment and Labour Law, Litigation

“It is the duty of an employee when rendering his or her services always to act exclusively in the interest of the employer … an employee is not entitled to use his or her employment relationship with the employer without the employer’s permission to make a profit or earn commission for his or her own account” (Extracts from judgment below)

Employees have very strong rights in our law, but employers also have effective remedies when employees “go rogue”.

A recent case, in which an employee was ordered to repay his employer R33m in “secret profits” including R9m in damages, provides a good example.

Diverted sales opportunities and secret profits
  • A manufacturer employed a “Key Accounts Manager” as its agent in dealing with customers. He was trusted with an “almost unlimited discretion” and minimal management oversight to act in his employer’s interests.
  • His employer sued him in the High Court on allegations that he breached both his employment contract and his duty to his employer, firstly by selling product to customers at below-minimum prices, and secondly by selling through his own companies to secretly profit thereby. 
  • The employee’s denials of wrongdoing cut no ice with the Court, which held that he “was clearly under a general obligation to do his best for his employer and to conduct the plaintiff’s business in good faith and for its benefit” but “was in breach of his fundamental obligation of loyalty and good faith which he owed to … his employer”.
  • The secret profits claim. Ordering the employee to “disgorge” his secret profits of R33,291,599.24 (less any “amounts paid in making such profits” which the employee is able to prove), the Court held that the employer had proved the three elements needed to succeed in such a claim –
    • The employee owed it a “fiduciary obligation” (a duty to act honestly and in utmost good faith),
    • In breach of that obligation he placed himself in a position where his duty and his personal interest were in conflict, and
    • He made a secret profit out of corporate opportunities belonging to the employer.
  • The damages claim was for losses on product sold to customers at prices well below the employer’s base price “in order to further [the employee’s] secret profit-making activities.” Finding that but for the employee’s wrongdoing the customers would have bought product at no less than the base price, the Court awarded the employer R9,407,651.05 in damages (to be credited, when paid, to the R33m claim). 
Rubbing salt in…

To really rub salt into the employee’s wounds, he was ordered to pay costs, and the bill will be a big one, including –

  • Costs on the punitive “attorney and client” scale, an appropriate order said the Court “given the secret and unlawful nature of the scheme which the defendant ran for four years at the expense of his employer”, 
  • The cost of audio visual equipment used in the trial, and
  • The (no doubt substantial) travel and subsistence costs of both the employer’s legal team and its six witnesses, all of whom travelled from Gauteng to Cape Town for the trial.  

Disclaimer: The information provided herein should not be used or relied on as professional advice. No liability can be accepted for any errors or omissions nor for any loss or damage arising from reliance upon any information herein. Always contact your professional adviser for specific and detailed advice.

© LawDotNews