Wednesday, July 19, 2017

Johnson v. North Shore Yacht Works Corp.

In British Columbia, a trustee acting in the administration of a trust is generally entitled to be reimbursed for his or her reasonable expenses out of the trust assets. But what if the trustee makes a contract in respect of the trust assets, and there are insufficient assets in the trust to pay the amount owing? Might the trustee have to pay the shortfall out of his or her own pocket?

The answer is that unless the trustee has limited the trustee’s liability in the contact, he or she will be out of pocket.

This point is illustrated by the recent decision in Johnson v. North Shore Yacht Works Corp., 2017 BCSC 1229.

Garfield Johnson and Robin Macfarlane are the trustees of the Chester Allison Johnson Alter Ego Trust (which I will refer to simply as the trust). They contracted with North Shore Yacht Works Corp. (which I will refer to as North Shore) to repair a yacht which was an asset of the trust. Ultimately, more money was spent on the repairs than what the yacht could sell for. Mr. Johnson and Mr. Macfarlane as trustees sued North Shore, and North Shore made a counter claim against both Mr. Johnson and Mr. Macfarlane as trustees, and against Mr. Johnson personally. Mr. Justice Grauer ultimately found Mr. Johnson and Mr. Macfarlane in their capacity as trustees liable to North Shore for $166,219, but dismissed the counter claim against Mr. Johnson personally. (The contract dispute is reported at 2014 BCSC 2057.)

Some of the judgment debt to North Shore was satisfied by the seizure and sale of the yacht, but there remained a significant shortfall of over $140,000 and there were no assets left in the trust.

Mr. Johnson and Mr. Macfarlane argued that North Shore was not entitled to collect from them personally. Two or the arguments they advanced were that North Shore knew it was dealing with them as trustees, and Mr. Justice Grauer had dismissed the counter claim against Mr. Johnson personally.

Mr. Justice Grauer held that North Shore was entitled to collect from the trustees’ own assets. They had not limited their liability to the trust assets in the contract. The significance of finding that they were liable as trustees is that they are then entitled to be indemnified out of the trust assets for the liabilities, but it does not negate their personal responsibilities to satisfy the judgment. If the judgment had been against Mr. Johnson personally, he would not have been entitled to be indemnified out of the trust assets.

Mr. Justice Grauer wrote at paragraphs 8 through 10 and paragraphs 14 and 15:

[8]             The defendant [North Shore] submits that it is a long-standing principle of trust law that a trustee is personally liable on contracts into which it enters on behalf of the trust.  The trustee’s remedy is to seek indemnity from the trust for that liability.  The only exception to the trustee being personally liable is where he has specifically contracted to limit his liability to the assets of the trust.
[9]             The authorities bear this out: see, for instance, Benett v Wyndham (1862), 4 DeG F & J 259 (CA);  Muir v City of Glasgow Bank (1879), 4 App Cas 337 (HL); Davis v Sawkiw(1983), 38 OR (2d) 466 (H Ct J); Pettit, Equity and the Law of Trusts, 12th ed (2012) at pp 413-414; and Underhill and Hayton, Law Relating to Trusts and Trustees, 18th ed (2010), p. 1066, para 81.5. 
[10]         In Hall v MacIntyre, [1934] 2 WWR 145 (BCCA), Chief Justice Macdonald put it this way:
It is well-understood law that an executor or trustee who makes a contract in relation to his trust is personally liable to the contractor for the price agreed upon.
[14]         The plaintiffs [Mr. Johnson and Mr. Macfarlane] then assert that a trustee should not be liable in his personal capacity where the defendant was aware that it was dealing with him in his capacity as a trustee, relying on Gordon v Roebuck, [1992] OJ No. 1499 (CA) at para 16.  I had dismissed the counterclaim against Garfield Johnson in his personal capacity because of my finding that the defendant was aware, if somewhat vaguely, that the yacht was owned by a trust or an estate, not by Mr. Johnson personally.
[15]         But the conclusion in Gordon was that judgment should not be entered against the trustee in his personal capacity when the other party knew it was dealing with a trustee.  I agree it should not, and that was the basis on which I dismissed the claim against Mr. Johnson personally.  A judgment against the trustee qua trustee permits the trustee to seek indemnity from the trust.  A judgment against the trustee in his personal capacity would deprive him of that ability.  The distinction is therefore important.  Here, the issue is quite different: where the trustee is found liable qua trustee, can the judgment creditor execute against the trustee’s personal assets thereby giving rise to the right to claim indemnity?  In my view, the Gordon case does not address that issue.  The authorities cited above do. 

When acting as a trustee, it is important to keep in mind that a trust is not a separate legal person like a corporation. Usually, directors are not personally liable for contracts made on behalf of a corporation (there are exceptions). In contrast, trustees act personally and as this case demonstrates may end up personally on the hook for commitments they make as trustees. 

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