The Personal Liabilities of a Director of a Corporation
In the absence of fraudulent or illegal conduct or conduct that is beyond the scope of the director’s authority, a director will not generally face personal liability. However, a director may be held personally liable if they fail to indicate that they are acting in their capacity as a director, breach their fiduciary duties, or fail to act in an objectively reasonable manner. A director may also face personal liability for any amounts owing to the government that the company has failed to pay for income tax, GST, Employment Insurance or the Canada Pension Plan. A director may protect against personal liability by prudently fulfilling their obligations as a director and by ensuring that there are proper protections in place to minimize the risk of personal liability.
In general, a company will shield a director from personal liability while they are acting as a director, provided that they are not acting fraudulently or illegally. However, there are certain circumstances in which a director will face personal liability.
A director owes a duty of care to the company by virtue of their position. The applicable standard of care is set out in the Business Corporations Act to be that of a reasonably prudent individual in comparable circumstances. Directors with special expertise or knowledge (such as a lawyer, accountant, etc.) will be held to a higher standard of care. A director may delegate responsibilities to others, such as an officer or an expert; however, the director remains responsible to ensure that the individual is competent and that they adequately perform their duties. A director who breaches their duty of care to the company may face personal liability for any loss that the company suffers as a result.
A director has a fiduciary duty to act honestly and in good faith, with a view to the best interests of the company. This requires the director to avoid the pursuit of personal gain where it is inconsistent with the best interests of the company, act selflessly and loyally as a director of the company, maintain the confidentiality of information acquired by virtue of their position, and avoid conflicts of interest or disclose conflicts in a timely manner. A conflict of interest may arise where a director has a material interest in a contract, decision, or transaction contemplated by the company, when a director enters into a contract that competes with the company, or when the director takes an opportunity that rightfully belongs to the company. A director who breaches their fiduciary duty to the company may face personal liability for any loss that the company suffers as a result of the breach.
A director may face personal liability if it is not clear to other parties that he or she is acting in their capacity as a director of the company. If third parties believe they are dealing with an individual and not a company, the director may face liability for any obligations or losses resulting from the transaction. A director will also be personally liable for their tortious conduct to third parties if the director is not acting within the scope of their authority or on behalf of the company. A director must act in accordance with the applicable statutes, regulations, memorandum and articles of the company. If they fail to do so and behave improperly, they may be held personally liable.
Although directors generally only owe a duty to the company, in certain cases courts have held directors personally liable for breaching a duty to creditors. For example, failing to act reasonably by preferring one creditor over another when the company was insolvent, or engaging in other conduct prohibited by the Bankruptcy and Insolvency Act may give rise to personal liability. A director may also be personally liable for oppression or unfairly prejudicial conduct towards certain stakeholders, such as shareholders. These parties have reasonable expectations that directors will fulfill their duties to the company fairly. Consequently, in certain circumstances, a director may be personally liable if, for example, they gained a personal benefit or increased their control of the company as a result of the oppressive or unfairly prejudicial conduct.
Statutory provisions may also impose personal liability on a director. For example, a director will face personal liability if they pay a dividend, purchases, or redeems shares in the company where the company is insolvent or the action would render it insolvent. Indemnifying another director or officer where indemnity is not permitted by the company’s articles, its memorandum, or by statute may also result in personal liability. Authorizing the making of a false or misleading statement can give rise to personal liability. Significantly, while a director is generally not liable for the misdeeds of other directors if a resolution that authorizes illegal or improper conduct is passed while the director is absent, that director must dissent in writing within seven days of learning of the prohibited act or they will face personal liability. If there is a causal connection between a director’s inaction and a loss suffered by the company, then the director may be held liable for the loss.
Where the director failed to exercise due diligence, depending on the nature of the business a number of other statutes may also impose liability. A director may face personal liability if a company fails to pay the Canada Revenue Agency for any amounts owing, including interest and penalties, GST remittances, failure to withhold and remit income tax, or failure to deduct and remit for employment insurance or the Canada Pension Plan. Liability for these amounts only attaches to a director who was acting as a director when these amounts became due and has acted as a director within the last two years. A director should also be aware of a company’s need to withhold income tax for employees claiming tax exemptions under the Indian Act for Indian property that is not actually situated on a reserve. A director may face personal liability for any amounts that the company failed to withhold and that the CRA has been unable to recover from the company. A director may be excused from personal liability if they can demonstrate that they acted reasonably and diligently in the circumstances by trying to resolve any of the business’ financial difficulties to assist with payment and by ultimately ensuring that the company pays any amounts owing.
Under the Employment Standards Act, each director of a company may be liable for up to two months of unpaid wages for each employee. However, a director will not be personally liable for termination pay, vacation pay that becomes due after the director has ceased to hold office, or for money that remains in an employee’s time bank after the director has ceased to hold office if the company is in receivership or pursuing bankruptcy proceedings. Directors may also be liable for injuries related to unsafe working conditions.
A director may face personal liability for failure to comply with environmental laws where they did not exercise due diligence to prevent this failure. In certain cases, where a company’s actions have resulted in contamination, directors have been found personally liable despite not being a director at the time the company caused the contamination.
A director may reduce the risk of personal liability by properly fulfilling his or her duties as director, by being familiar and ensuring compliance with the applicable statutes and the company’s articles and other governing documents, by carefully appointing and maintaining proper supervision over officers and experts, and by maintaining appropriate governance policies. A director may also reduce his or her personal liability risk by ensuring that there is adequate liability insurance in place for directors and that there is an indemnity agreement from the company to provide indemnity for personal liability, when appropriate, that occurs while performing directors’ duties.
The company will generally protect a director from personal liability; however, there are certain circumstances in which a director will experience personal liability. In addition to personal liability for fraudulent or illegal conduct, a director may also face liability for failing to represent oneself as a director of the company or failing to act within the scope of their authority as director. A director must also ensure that he or she is familiar with any laws under the statutes that apply to the company, and that any obligations arising from income tax, GST, Employment Insurance, or the Canada Pension Plan are withheld and remitted. In order to avoid personal liability, a director must fulfill their obligations to the company by acting in the best interests of the company, by exercising reasonable care, diligence and skill, and by acting in accordance with the applicable statutes, regulations, and the memorandum and articles of the company.