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15.3 Agent’s Personal Liability for Torts and Contracts; Termination of Agency

Learning Objectives

  1. Understand the agent’s personal liability for tort.
  2. Understand the agent’s personal liability for contract.
  3. Recognize the ways the agency relationship is terminated.

Agent’s Personal Liability for Torts and Contracts

Tort Liability

That a principal is held vicariously liable and must pay damages to an injured third person does not excuse the agent who actually committed the tortious acts. A person is always liable for his or her own torts (unless the person is insane, involuntarily intoxicated, or acting under extreme duress). The agent is personally liable for his wrongful acts and must reimburse the principal for any damages the principal was forced to pay, as long as the principal did not authorize the wrongful conduct. The agent directed to commit a tort remains liable for his own conduct but is not obliged to repay the principal. Liability as an agent can be burdensome, sometimes perhaps more burdensome than as a principal. The latter normally purchases insurance to cover against wrongful acts of agents, but liability insurance policies frequently do not cover the employee’s personal liability if the employee is named in a lawsuit individually. Thus doctors’ and hospitals’ malpractice policies protect a doctor from both her own mistakes and those of nurses and others that the doctor would be responsible for; nurses, however, might need their own coverage. In the absence of insurance, an agent is at serious risk in this lawsuit-conscious age. The risk is not total. The agent is not liable for torts of other agents unless he is personally at fault—for example, by negligently supervising a junior or by giving faulty instructions. For example, an agent, the general manager for a principal, hires Brown as a subordinate. Brown is competent to do the job but by failing to exercise proper control over a machine negligently injures Ted, a visitor to the premises. The principal and Brown are liable to Ted, but the agent is not.

Contract Liability

It makes sense that an agent should be liable for her own torts; it would be a bad social policy indeed if a person could escape tort liability based on her own fault merely because she acted in an agency capacity. It also makes sense that—as is the general rule—an agent is not liable on contracts she makes on the principal’s behalf; the agent is not a party to a contract made by the agent on behalf of the principal. No public policy would be served by imposing liability, and in many cases it would not make sense. Suppose an agent contracts to buy $25 million of rolled aluminum for a principal, an airplane manufacturer. The agent personally could not reasonably perform such contract, and it is not intended by the parties that she should be liable. (Although the rule is different in England, where an agent residing outside the country is liable even if it is clear that he is signing in an agency capacity.) But there are three exceptions to this rule: (1) if the agent is undisclosed or partially disclosed, (2) if the agent lacks authority or exceeds it, or (3) if the agent entered into the contract in a personal capacity. We consider each situation.

Agent for Undisclosed or Partially Disclosed Principal

An agent need not, and frequently will not, inform the person with whom he is negotiating that he is acting on behalf of a principal. The secret principal is usually called an “undisclosed principal.” Or the agent may tell the other person that he is acting as an agent but not disclose the principal’s name, in which event the principal is “partially disclosed.” To understand the difficulties that may occur, consider the following hypothetical but common example. A real estate developer known for building amusement parks wants to acquire several parcels of land to construct a new park. He wants to keep his identity secret to hold down the land cost. If the landowners realized that a major building project was about to be launched, their asking price would be quite high. So the developer obtains two options to purchase land by using two secret agents—Betty and Clem.

Betty does not mention to sellers that she is an agent; therefore, to those sellers the developer is an undisclosed principal. Clem tells those with whom he is dealing that he is an agent but refuses to divulge the developer’s name or his business interest in the land. Thus the developer is, to the latter sellers, a partially disclosed principal. Suppose the sellers get wind of the impending construction and want to back out of the deal. Who may enforce the contracts against them?

The developer and the agents may sue to compel transfer of title. The undisclosed or partially disclosed principal may act to enforce his rights unless the contract specifically prohibits it or there is a representation that the signatories are not signing for an undisclosed principal. The agents may also bring suit to enforce the principal’s contract rights because, as agents for an undisclosed or partially disclosed principal, they are considered parties to their contracts.

Now suppose the developer attempts to call off the deal. Whom may the sellers sue? Both the developer and the agents are liable. That the sellers had no knowledge of the developer’s identity—or even that there was a developer—does not invalidate the contract. If the sellers first sue agent Betty (or Clem), they may still recover the purchase price from the developer as long as they had no knowledge of his identity prior to winning the first lawsuit. The developer is discharged from liability if, knowing his identity, the plaintiffs persist in a suit against the agents and recover a judgment against them anyway. Similarly, if the seller sues the principal and recovers a judgment, the agents are relieved of liability. The seller thus has a “right of election” to sue either the agent or the undisclosed principal, a right that in many states may be exercised any time before the seller collects on the judgment.

Lack of Authority in Agent

An agent who purports to make a contract on behalf of a principal, but who in fact has no authority to do so, is liable to the other party. The theory is that the agent has warranted to the third party that he has the requisite authority. The principal is not liable in the absence of apparent authority or ratification. But the agent does not warrant that the principal has capacity. Thus an agent for a minor is not liable on a contract that the minor later disavows unless the agent expressly warranted that the principal had attained his majority. In short, the implied warranty is that the agent has authority to make a deal, not that the principal will necessarily comply with the contract once the deal is made.

Agent Acting on Own Account

An agent will be liable on contracts made in a personal capacity—for instance, when the agent personally guarantees repayment of a debt. The agent’s intention to be personally liable is often difficult to determine on the basis of his signature on a contract. Generally, a person signing a contract can avoid personal liability only by showing that he was in fact signing as an agent. If the contract is signed “Jones, Agent,” Jones can introduce evidence to show that there was never an intention to hold him personally liable. But if he signed “Jones” and neither his agency nor the principal’s name is included, he will be personally liable. This can be troublesome to agents who routinely indorse checks and notes. There are special rules governing these situations.

Termination of Agency

The agency relationship is not permanent. Either by action of the parties or by law, the relationship will eventually terminate.

By Act of the Parties

Certainly the parties to an agency contract can terminate the agreement. As with the creation of the relationship, the agreement may be terminated either expressly or implicitly.

Express Termination

Many agreements contain specified circumstances whose occurrence signals the end of the agency. The most obvious of these circumstances is the expiration of a fixed period of time (“agency to terminate at the end of three months” or “on midnight, December 31”). An agreement may also terminate on the accomplishment of a specified act (“on the sale of the house”) or following a specific event (“at the conclusion of the last horse race”).

Mutual consent between the parties will end the agency. Moreover, the principal may revoke the agency or the agent may renounce it; such a revocationThe principal’s unilateral termination of the agency relationship. or renunciation of agencyThe agent’s unilateral termination of the agency relationship. would be an express termination. Even a contract that states the agreement is irrevocable will not be binding, although it can be the basis for a damage suit against the one who breached the agreement by revoking or renouncing it. As with any contract, a person has the power to breach, even in absence of the right to do so. If the agency is coupled with an interest, however, so that the authority to act is given to secure an interest that the agent has in the subject matter of the agency, then the principal lacks the power to revoke the agreement.

Implied Termination

There are a number of other circumstances that will spell the end of the relationship by implication. Unspecified events or changes in business conditions or the value of the subject matter of the agency might lead to a reasonable inference that the agency should be terminated or suspended; for example, the principal desires the agent to buy silver but the silver market unexpectedly rises and silver doubles in price overnight. Other circumstances that end the agency include disloyalty of the agent (e.g., he accepts an appointment that is adverse to his first principal or embezzles from the principal), bankruptcy of the agent or of the principal, the outbreak of war (if it is reasonable to infer that the principal, knowing of the war, would not want the agent to continue to exercise authority), and a change in the law that makes a continued carrying out of the task illegal or seriously interferes with it.

By Operation of Law

Aside from the express termination (by agreement of both or upon the insistence of one), or the necessary or reasonable inferences that can be drawn from their agreements, the law voids agencies under certain circumstances. The most frequent termination by operation of law is the death of a principal or an agent. The death of an agent also terminates the authority of subagents he has appointed, unless the principal has expressly consented to the continuing validity of their appointment. Similarly, if the agent or principal loses capacity to enter into an agency relationship, it is suspended or terminated. The agency terminates if its purpose becomes illegal.

Even though authority has terminated, whether by action of the parties or operation of law, the principal may still be subject to liability. Apparent authority in many instances will still exist; this is called lingering authorityAuthority that arises where actual authority has been terminated, but third parties are led by the principal’s negligence to believe it still exists.. It is imperative for a principal on termination of authority to notify all those who may still be in a position to deal with the agent. The only exceptions to this requirement are when termination is effected by death, loss of the principal’s capacity, or an event that would make it impossible to carry out the object of the agency.

Key Takeaway

A person is always liable for her own torts, so an agent who commits a tort is liable; if the tort was in the scope of employment the principal is liable too. Unless the principal put the agent up to committing the tort, the agent will have to reimburse the principal. An agent is not generally liable for contracts made; the principal is liable. But the agent will be liable if he is undisclosed or partially disclosed, if the agent lacks authority or exceeds it, or, of course, if the agent entered into the contract in a personal capacity.

Agencies terminate expressly or impliedly or by operation of law. An agency terminates expressly by the terms of the agreement or mutual consent, or by the principal’s revocation or the agent’s renunciation. An agency terminates impliedly by any number of circumstances in which it is reasonable to assume one or both of the parties would not want the relationship to continue. An agency will terminate by operation of law when one or the other party dies or becomes incompetent, or if the object of the agency becomes illegal. However, an agent may have apparent lingering authority, so the principal, upon termination of the agency, should notify those who might deal with the agent that the relationship is severed.

Exercises

  1. Pauline, the owner of a large bakery business, wishes to expand her facilities by purchasing the adjacent property. She engages Alice as an agent to negotiate the deal with the property owner but instructs her not to tell the property owner that she—Alice—is acting as an agent because Pauline is concerned that the property owner would demand a high price. A reasonable contract is made. When the economy sours, Pauline decides not to expand and cancels the plan. Who is liable for the breach?
  2. Peter, the principal, instructs his agent, Alice, to tour England and purchase antique dining room furniture for Peter’s store. Alice buys an antique bed set. Who is liable, Peter or Alice? Suppose the seller did not know of the limit on Alice’s authority and sells the bed set to Alice in good faith. What happens when Peter discovers he owes the seller for the set?
  3. Under what circumstances will the agency terminate expressly?
  4. Agent is hired by Principal to sell a new drug, Phobbot. Six months later, as it becomes apparent that Phobbot has nasty side effects (including death), the Food and Drug Administration orders the drug pulled from the shelves. Agent’s agency is terminated; what terminology is appropriate to describe how?
  5. Principal engages Agent to buy lumber, and in that capacity Agent deals with several large timber owners. Agent’s contract ends on July 31; on August 1, Agent buys $150,000 worth of lumber from a seller with whom he had dealt previously on Principal’s behalf. Who is liable and why?