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20.4 Cases

Successor Liability

Ray v. Alad Corporation

19 Cal. 3d 22; 560 P2d 3; 136 Cal. Rptr. 574 (Cal. 1977)

Claiming damages for injury from a defective ladder, plaintiff asserts strict tort liability against defendant Alad Corporation (Alad II) which neither manufactured nor sold the ladder but prior to plaintiff’s injury succeeded to the business of the ladder’s manufacturer, the now dissolved “Alad Corporation” (Alad I), through a purchase of Alad I’s assets for an adequate cash consideration. Upon acquiring Alad I’s plant, equipment, inventory, trade name, and good will, Alad II continued to manufacture the same line of ladders under the “Alad” name, using the same equipment, designs, and personnel, and soliciting Alad I’s customers through the same sales representatives with no outward indication of any change in the ownership of the business. The trial court entered summary judgment for Alad II and plaintiff appeals.…

Our discussion of the law starts with the rule ordinarily applied to the determination of whether a corporation purchasing the principal assets of another corporation assumes the other’s liabilities. As typically formulated, the rule states that the purchaser does not assume the seller’s liabilities unless (1) there is an express or implied agreement of assumption, (2) the transaction amounts to a consolidation or merger of the two corporations, (3) the purchasing corporation is a mere continuation of the seller, or (4) the transfer of assets to the purchaser is for the fraudulent purpose of escaping liability for the seller’s debts.

If this rule were determinative of Alad II’s liability to plaintiff it would require us to affirm the summary judgment. None of the rule’s four stated grounds for imposing liability on the purchasing corporation is present here. There was no express or implied agreement to assume liability for injury from defective products previously manufactured by Alad I. Nor is there any indication or contention that the transaction was prompted by any fraudulent purpose of escaping liability for Alad I’s debts.

With respect to the second stated ground for liability, the purchase of Alad I’s assets did not amount to a consolidation or merger. This exception has been invoked where one corporation takes all of another’s assets without providing any consideration that could be made available to meet claims of the other’s creditors or where the consideration consists wholly of shares of the purchaser’s stock which are promptly distributed to the seller’s shareholders in conjunction with the seller’s liquidation. In the present case the sole consideration given for Alad I’s assets was cash in excess of $ 207,000. Of this amount Alad I was paid $ 70,000 when the assets were transferred and at the same time a promissory note was given to Alad I for almost $ 114,000. Shortly before the dissolution of Alad I the note was assigned to the Hamblys, Alad I’s principal stockholders, and thereafter the note was paid in full. The remainder of the consideration went for closing expenses or was paid to the Hamblys for consulting services and their agreement not to compete. There is no contention that this consideration was inadequate or that the cash and promissory note given to Alad I were not included in the assets available to meet claims of Alad I’s creditors at the time of dissolution. Hence the acquisition of Alad I’s assets was not in the nature of a merger or consolidation for purposes of the aforesaid rule.

Plaintiff contends that the rule’s third stated ground for liability makes Alad II liable as a mere continuation of Alad I in view of Alad II’s acquisition of all Alad I’s operating assets, its use of those assets and of Alad I’s former employees to manufacture the same line of products, and its holding itself out to customers and the public as a continuation of the same enterprise. However, California decisions holding that a corporation acquiring the assets of another corporation is the latter’s mere continuation and therefore liable for its debts have imposed such liability only upon a showing of one or both of the following factual elements: (1) no adequate consideration was given for the predecessor corporation’s assets and made available for meeting the claims of its unsecured creditors; (2) one or more persons were officers, directors, or stockholders of both corporations.…

We therefore conclude that the general rule governing succession to liabilities does not require Alad II to respond to plaintiff’s claim.…

[However], we must decide whether the policies underlying strict tort liability for defective products call for a special exception to the rule that would otherwise insulate the present defendant from plaintiff’s claim.

The purpose of the rule of strict tort liability “is to insure that the costs of injuries resulting from defective products are borne by the manufacturers that put such products on the market rather than by the injured persons who are powerless to protect themselves.” However, the rule “does not rest on the analysis of the financial strength or bargaining power of the parties to the particular action. It rests, rather, on the proposition that ‘The cost of an injury and the loss of time or health may be an overwhelming misfortune to the person injured, and a needless one, for the risk of injury can be insured by the manufacturer and distributed among the public as a cost of doing business. (Escola v. Coca Cola Bottling Co., 24 Cal.2d 453, 462 [150 P.2d 436] [concurring opinion]) Thus, “the paramount policy to be promoted by the rule is the protection of otherwise defenseless victims of manufacturing defects and the spreading throughout society of the cost of compensating them.” Justification for imposing strict liability upon a successor to a manufacturer under the circumstances here presented rests upon (1) the virtual destruction of the plaintiff’s remedies against the original manufacturer caused by the successor’s acquisition of the business, (2) the successor’s ability to assume the original manufacturer’s risk-spreading role, and (3) the fairness of requiring the successor to assume a responsibility for defective products that was a burden necessarily attached to the original manufacturer’s good will being enjoyed by the successor in the continued operation of the business.

We therefore conclude that a party which acquires a manufacturing business and continues the output of its line of products under the circumstances here presented assumes strict tort liability for defects in units of the same product line previously manufactured and distributed by the entity from which the business was acquired.

The judgment is reversed.

Case Questions

  1. What is the general rule regarding successor liability?
  2. How does the Ray court deviate from this general rule?
  3. What is the court’s rationale for this deviation?
  4. What are some possible consequences for corporations considering expansion?

Constitutional Issues Surrounding Taxation of a Foreign Corporation

D. H. Holmes Co. Ltd. V. McNamara

486 U.S. 24; 108 S.Ct. 1619, 100 L. Ed. 2d 21 (1988)

Appellant D. H. Holmes Company, Ltd., is a Louisiana corporation with its principal place of business and registered office in New Orleans. Holmes owns and operates 13 department stores in various locations throughout Louisiana that employ about 5,000 workers. It has approximately 500,000 credit card customers and an estimated 1,000,000 other customers within the State.

In 1979–1981, Holmes contracted with several New York companies for the design and printing of merchandise catalogs. The catalogs were designed in New York, but were actually printed in Atlanta, Boston, and Oklahoma City. From these locations, 82% of the catalogs were directly mailed to residents of Louisiana; the remainder of the catalogs was mailed to customers in Alabama, Mississippi, and Florida, or was sent to Holmes for distribution at its flagship store on Canal Street in New Orleans. The catalogs were shipped free of charge to the addressee, and their entire cost (about $ 2 million for the 3-year period), including mailing, was borne by Holmes. Holmes did not, however, pay any sales tax where the catalogs were designed or printed.

Although the merchandise catalogs were mailed to selected customers, they contained instructions to the postal carrier to leave them with the current resident if the addressee had moved, and to return undeliverable catalogs to Holmes’ Canal Street store. Holmes freely concedes that the purpose of the catalogs was to promote sales at its stores and to instill name recognition in future buyers. The catalogs included inserts which could be used to order Holmes’ products by mail.

The Louisiana Department of Revenue and Taxation, of which appellee is the current Secretary, conducted an audit of Holmes’ tax returns for 1979–1981 and determined that it was liable for delinquent use taxes on the value of the catalogs. The Department of Revenue and Taxation assessed the use tax pursuant to La. Rev. Stat. Ann. §§ 47:302 and 47:321 (West 1970 and Supp. 1988), which are set forth in the margin. Together, §§ 47:302(A)(2) and 47:321(A)(2) impose a use tax of 3% on all tangible personal property used in Louisiana. “Use,” as defined elsewhere in the statute, is the exercise of any right or power over tangible personal property incident to ownership, and includes consumption, distribution, and storage. The use tax is designed to compensate the State for sales tax that is lost when goods are purchased out-of-state and brought for use into Louisiana, and is calculated on the retail price the property would have brought when imported.

When Holmes refused to pay the use tax assessed against it, the State filed suit in Louisiana Civil District Court to collect the tax. [The lower courts held for the State.]…

The Commerce Clause of the Constitution, Art. I, § 8, cl. 3, provides that Congress shall have the power “to regulate Commerce with foreign Nations, and among the several States, and with the Indian Tribes.” Even where Congress has not acted affirmatively to protect interstate commerce, the Clause prevents States from discriminating against that commerce. The “distinction between the power of the State to shelter its people from menaces to their health or safety and from fraud, even when those dangers emanate from interstate commerce, and its lack of power to retard, burden or constrict the flow of such commerce for their economic advantage, is one deeply rooted in both our history and our law.” H. P. Hood & Sons v. Du Mond, 336 U.S. 525, 533, 93 L. Ed. 865, 69 S.Ct. 657 (1949).

One frequent source of conflict of this kind occurs when a State seeks to tax the sale or use of goods within its borders. This recurring dilemma is exemplified in what has come to be the leading case in the area. Complete Auto Transit, Inc. v. Brady, 430 U.S. 274, 51 L. Ed. 2d 326, 97 S.Ct. 1076 (1977). In Complete Auto, Mississippi imposed a tax on appellant’s business of in-state transportation of motor vehicles manufactured outside the State. We found that the State’s tax did not violate the Commerce Clause, because appellant’s activity had a substantial nexus with Mississippi, and the tax was fairly apportioned, did not discriminate against interstate commerce, and was fairly related to benefits provided by the State.

Complete Auto abandoned the abstract notion that interstate commerce “itself” cannot be taxed by the States. We recognized that, with certain restrictions, interstate commerce may be required to pay its fair share of state taxes. Accordingly, in the present case, it really makes little difference for Commerce Clause purposes whether Holmes’ catalogs “came to rest” in the mailboxes of its Louisiana customers or whether they were still considered in the stream of interstate commerce.…

In the case before us, then, the application of Louisiana’s use tax to Holmes’ catalogs does not violate the Commerce Clause if the tax complies with the four prongs of Complete Auto. We have no doubt that the second and third elements of the test are satisfied. The Louisiana taxing scheme is fairly apportioned, for it provides a credit against its use tax for sales taxes that have been paid in other States. Holmes paid no sales tax for the catalogs where they were designed or printed; if it had, it would have been eligible for a credit against the use tax exacted. Similarly, Louisiana imposed its use tax only on the 82% of the catalogs distributed in-state; it did not attempt to tax that portion of the catalogs that went to out-of-state customers.

The Louisiana tax structure likewise does not discriminate against interstate commerce. The use tax is designed to compensate the State for revenue lost when residents purchase out-of-state goods for use within the State. It is equal to the sales tax applicable to the same tangible personal property purchased in-state; in fact, both taxes are set forth in the same sections of the Louisiana statutes.

Complete Auto requires that the tax be fairly related to benefits provided by the State, but that condition is also met here. Louisiana provides a number of services that facilitate Holmes’ sale of merchandise within the State: It provides fire and police protection for Holmes’ stores, runs mass transit and maintains public roads which benefit Holmes’ customers, and supplies a number of other civic services from which Holmes profits. To be sure, many others in the State benefit from the same services; but that does not alter the fact that the use tax paid by Holmes, on catalogs designed to increase sales, is related to the advantages provided by the State which aid Holmes’ business.

Finally, we believe that Holmes’ distribution of its catalogs reflects a substantial nexus with Louisiana. To begin with, Holmes’ contention that it lacked sufficient control over the catalogs’ distribution in Louisiana to be subject to the use tax verges on the nonsensical. Holmes ordered and paid for the catalogs and supplied the list of customers to whom the catalogs were sent; any catalogs that could not be delivered were returned to it. Holmes admits that it initiated the distribution to improve its sales and name recognition among Louisiana residents. Holmes also has a significant presence in Louisiana, with 13 stores and over $100 million in annual sales in the State. The distribution of catalogs to approximately 400,000 Louisiana customers was directly aimed at expanding and enhancing its Louisiana business. There is “nexus” aplenty here. [Judgment affirmed.]

Case Questions

  1. What is the main constitutional issue in this case?
  2. What are the four prongs to test whether a tax violates the Constitution, as laid out in Complete Auto?
  3. Does this case hold for the proposition that a state may levy any tax upon a foreign corporation?