COVID-19 Reminder: Protect Yourself against Personal Liability

Corporate Board Member

Corporate executives who serve on the board of directors of their companies or other companies, are subject to directors’ fiduciary duties. During the COVID-19 pandemic, directors must do more than merely receive management’s reports on the impact of COVID-19 on the company’s operations, risks faced by the company, and its response to COVID-19-related challenges. Instead, directors must proactively make good faith efforts to implement and monitor board-level oversight systems. The Delaware Supreme Court’s June 2019 decision in Marchand v. Barnhill emphasized the importance of a board-level compliance and reporting system to oversee a company’s operations, and a board’s compliance and reporting system has become paramount in light of the company’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Marchand elaborated on the Caremark standard and directors’ duty to make a good faith effort to oversee and monitor the company’s operational viability, legal compliance and financial performance. A board’s “utter failure” to make sure a reasonable information and reporting system exists is considered an act of bad faith in breach of a director’s duty of loyalty, which may expose a director to personal liability. Marchand emphasized that directors must make a good faith effort to implement and maintain a reasonable board-level system of monitoring and reporting on issues intrinsically critical to the company’s business. For an ice cream manufacturing business—the focus of Marchand—this meant keeping much closer oversight of the company’s food safety compliance that could have prevented a deadly listeria outbreak, and the directors’ failure to do so may ultimately leave them on the hook personally.

Today, as the unprecedented outbreak of COVID-19 continues to take its toll on human life and wreak business havoc, the virus may also pose the special strain of threat capable of breaching directors’ duty of loyalty that was contemplated in Marchand. Directors should consider taking the following actions to proactively exercise their oversight function:

  1. Designate a board committee specifically charged with overseeing COVID-19-related matters (it can be a newly designated committee or the committee already charged with risk oversight).
  2. Implement a regular process or protocols that require management to keep the board apprised of the company’s COVID-19 response, impact of COVID-19 on the company’s financial position, and results of operations, as well as COVID-19-related compliance issues, risks and opportunities on a regular basis.
  3. Monitor and discuss COVID-19-related measures implemented by the company, as well as COVID-19-related compliance, impact and risks (for example, include COVID-19 topics on the agendas for regularly scheduled or special board meetings, and discuss guidelines or guidance issued by government agencies applicable to the company’s operations, such as the Securities and Exchange Commission).
  4. Reflect the board committee and full board’s COVID-19-related actions in the minutes.

This article refers to a Delaware law case. However, the action items described above represent best corporate governance practice in other jurisdictions too.

"COVID-19 Reminder: Protect Yourself against Personal Liability," by Yelena M. Barychev, Michaela L. Cronin, Melissa Palat Murawsky, Brad L. Shiffman, and Larry R. (Buzz) Wood, Jr. was published in Corporate Board Member on May 10, 2020.

For more information on this topic, please read our Corporate Litigation and Corporate Governance client advisory, An Important Reminder for Directors Amid the Coronavirus Pandemic: Satisfy Your Affirmative Duty of Oversight Today to Protect Against Potential Personal Liability Tomorrow (March 27, 2020).