The purpose of the benefit corporation is to provide an appropriate enterprise vehicle for for-profit mission-driven businesses. Among the objectives in structuring the benefit corporation form is the need to address critical issues regarding the duties and potential liabilities of directors and officers. The key objectives of the model legislation are to ensure that directors and officers of the benefit corporation do not incur liability for considering the interests of constituencies other than shareholders and to ensure that the directors and officers do not incur monetary liability for allegedly failing to fulfill the organization’s general or specific benefit purposes.
It is important to note that although the model legislation provides that the directors and officers cannot be held liable for damages under the benefit corporation provisions, the benefit corporation provisions do not exempt the directors and officers from liability for violating general standards of fiduciary care. The exemption from monetary damages in the model legislation provide only that directors is “not personally liable for monetary damages for (1) any action taken as a director if the directors performed the duties of office in compliance [existing statutory provisions specifying the duties of directors generally]; or (2) failure of the benefit corporation to pursue or create general public benefit or specific public benefit.” Parallel provisions provide similar protections for officers.
The point is that the exemption from monetary damages under the benefit corporation provisions does not exempt the directors and offices from claims for damages for violation of their general fiduciary duties. By the same token, however, the model legislation specifies that the directors and officers of the benefit corporation cannot be held liable for considering the interests of constituencies other than shareholders.
The model legislation does provide for a “benefits enforcement action,” for shareholders to pursue injunctive relief if the organization is not pursuing its benefits objectives or providing required reporting. Even though this action does not allow for damages, it does create a context within which defense costs could be incurred.
In other words, not withstanding the liability protections in the model legislation, directors and officers of a benefit corporation continue to face the possible liability exposures and defense expense exposures.
As a for-profit venture organized to pursue a public good, a benefit corporation does not really fit within the usual D&O insurance framework, which divides the world between non-profit and commercial enterprises. In addition, the benefit corporation regime has unique aspects that could have insurance implications, such as the possibility of a benefit enforcement action.
In just over two years, seven states have enacted legislative provisions allowing for benefit corporations. Implementing legislation is under consideration in several more states. It seems likely that adoption of benefit corporation legislation will become more generalized in the months and years ahead. It also seems likely that as the benefit corporation form become more widespread that insurers will be called upon to address the insurance needs of this new type of enterprise. The unique features of these organizations raises the possibility that new insurance solutions, targeted to the unique needs of these kinds of companies, will be required.
In any event, benefit corporations represent an interesting innovation on the corporate enterprise landscape. If, as seems likely, more states adopt benefit corporation enabling legislation, the issues involved in addressing these companies’ insurance requirements will become an increasingly common concern.