Law School Case Brief
Marchand v. Barnhill - 212 A.3d 805 (Del. 2019)
Under In re Caremark Int'l Inc. Derivative Litig. and the Supreme Court of Delaware's opinion in Stone v. Ritter, directors have a duty to exercise oversight and to monitor the corporation's operational viability, legal compliance, and financial performance. A board's utter failure to attempt to assure a reasonable information and reporting system exists is an act of bad faith in breach of the duty of loyalty.
Blue Bell Creameries USA, Inc., one of the country's largest ice cream manufacturers, suffered a listeria outbreak in early 2015, causing the company to recall all of its products, shut down production at all of its plants, and lay off over a third of its workforce. Blue Bell's failure to contain listeria's spread in its manufacturing plants caused listeria to be present in its products and had sad consequences. Three people died as a result of the listeria outbreak. Less consequentially, but nonetheless important for this litigation, stockholders also suffered losses because, after the operational shutdown, Blue Bell suffered a liquidity crisis that forced it to accept a dilutive private equity investment. Based on these unfortunate events, a stockholder brought a derivative suit against two key executives and against Blue Bell's directors claiming breaches of the defendants' fiduciary duties. The complaint alleges that the executives—Paul Kruse, the President and CEO, and Greg Bridges, the Vice President of Operations—breached their duties of care and loyalty by knowingly disregarding contamination risks and failing to oversee the safety of Blue Bell's food-making operations, and that the directors breached their duty of loyalty under Caremark.
Did the complaint allege particularized facts that support a reasonable inference that the Blue Bell board failed to implement any system to monitor Blue Bell’s food safety performance or compliance?
The complaint alleges particularized facts that support a reasonable inference that the Blue Bell board failed to implement any system to monitor Blue Bell's food safety performance or compliance. Under Caremark and this Court's opinion in Stone v. Ritter, directors have a duty "to exercise oversight" and to monitor the corporation's operational viability, legal compliance, and financial performance. A board's "utter failure to attempt to assure a reasonable information and reporting system exists" is an act of bad faith in breach of the duty of loyalty. In sum, the complaint supports an inference that no system of board-level compliance monitoring and reporting existed at Blue Bell. Although Caremark is a tough standard for plaintiffs to meet, the plaintiff has met it here. When a plaintiff can plead an inference that a board has undertaken no efforts to make sure it is informed of a compliance issue intrinsically critical to the company's business operation, then that supports an inference that the board has not made the good faith effort that Caremark requires.
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