Of Course We Can Sue Them . . . But Can We Hold Them Liable?

No one knows everything. It’s a simple fact of life. Often, businesses turn to other businesses and professionals to obtain needed information. The range of commercial information providers assisting business owners and real estate investors, developers and lenders gather and analyse information is vast.

Diana H. Psarras Business & Trust Litigation, Shareholder -Robbins, Salomon & Patt, Ltd.
Diana H. Psarras
Business & Trust Litigation, Shareholder, Robbins, Salomon & Patt, Ltd.

The question is: Do we have a legal right to rely on the information they provide? What if the information is wrong? What if we rely on that incorrect information and suffer a loss? Is the information provider liable?

It could be anything from hiring an appraiser to appraise a property to support a commercial loan; hiring a lab to analyze nutrition and caloric content of food products; or engaging a financial consultant to evaluate a company’s assets and liabilities as part of a business acquisition or merger; or seeking out a lending institution to provide information regarding the creditworthiness of a potential borrower. We might hire a structural engineer to evaluate the structural integrity of a building or bridge or other structure; or engage a surveyor to determine the scope and size of a parcel of land, or the location of easements and improvements located on the property, or the existence of rights of way to access the property; or we might retain a person or business holding itself out as a “due diligence” expert to investigate the essential facts necessary to enable us to determine whether to proceed with a particular transaction or project. The list of commercial information providers we rely upon to conduct our affairs is nearly endless.

Another simple fact of life is that people can and do make mistakes. They misinterpret information. Misstate the facts. Fail to discover and disclose all material information necessary to make information they have provided sufficient to enable informed action and decision-making.

What happens when your information provider gives you bad information and you suffer a loss as a result? Do you have any recourse? What if the bad information was simply a mistake? The information provider unintentionally got it wrong, rather than intentionally mislead you? The information provider may not have intended to cause you harm – but you have suffered a loss nonetheless. Is the information provider liable?

If the information provider supplies that information in the course of its business, knowing that you may rely upon it, the answer may very likely be “YES”.

A person who engages in the business of supplying information for the guidance of others is liable for economic damages if the information is incorrect or so incomplete as to be misleading. This is true whether the information provider knew it was wrong or not. Illinois law recognizes that, in general, information providers have a duty to provide complete and accurate information to the intended recipients of the information. If that duty is breached, and you sustain a loss because the information received was inaccurate or misleading, you may be able to recover damages from the party that provided the inaccurate information. The legal theory that gives you the right to sue and recover your damages is “negligent misrepresentation”.

What is negligent misrepresentation?

To prevail on a claim for negligent misrepresentation, you must plead and then prove that the information provider:

  1. made a false statement of material fact;
  2. was careless in ascertaining the truth of the statement;
  3. made the statement with the intention that you would act in reliance on it;
  4. you must have acted in reliance on the truthfulness of the statement;
  5. you must have incurred damage or loss as a result of such reliance; and
  6. the information provider must have been under a duty to communicate accurate information.

What is Fraudulent Misrepresentation?

Negligent misrepresentation is a stone’s throw away from fraudulent misrepresentation, differing in the important element of the intent of the information provider. To make a valid claim for “fraudulent misrepresentation”, the information provider must have known that the false statement was untrue, or must have acted in reckless disregard of its duty to ascertain and report the truth. To be liable, however, it is not necessary for the information provider to commit fraudulent misrepresentation. An information provider may be liable even if it was merely negligent in providing incorrect information.

An Information Provider Can Be Liable For Even Negligent Misrepresentation

Carelessness or negligence in ascertaining the truth of the erroneous statement is sufficient to render the information provider liable. The information provider doesn’t have to intend to offer bad information; just being careless in doing so is a sufficient basis to become liable. The information provider may have genuinely believed it to be true, but if it is untrue and the information provider was careless or negligent in determining the accuracy of the statement, the information provider may be liable to you for damages you sustain in reliance upon the faulty statement.

Liability for Failure to Provide Full Information

Liability of the information provider may even result from failure to provide full information. If a statement of “fact” fails to include other information that is reasonably necessary to prevent that statement from being misleading, this failure to provide adequate information may also result in liability to the information provider.

Information Providers Have A Duty To Provide Full and Accurate Information

Where does the duty arise from?

The duty owed by information providers may arise in different ways. It could be a “fiduciary duty” or a “contractual duty”, or a duty imposed by law.

  • A fiduciary duty can arise as a matter of law – attorney/client, trustee/beneficiary, corporate officer/corporation, etc., or can arise based on special circumstances of a parties’ relationship with another, wherein one party places trust and confidence in another so that the latter, after accepting the trust and confidence, gains superiority and influence over the former.
  • A contractual duty may arise by the terms of a written or oral contract, or may arise as a consequence of custom and practice.
  • Duties imposed by law may arise by statute, regulation, custom and practice, or at common law.

The duty of information providers to provide complete and accurate information can stem from one or more of the above.

What does this mean in the real world and to whom who does this apply?

The type or scope of information to be provided may arise via contract, but the duty of an information provider to make sure the information provided is accurate is a duty implied in law and arises separate and apart from the contract. For example, if you contract with an information provider to provide information that will be used by you in your trade or business, that information provider owes you a duty to provide information that is accurate, and not misleading, even if there is no provision in your contract expressly requiring it to do so.

Real world examples:

Example A: Illinois courts have held that a bank providing credit information about a borrower to a potential lender was an information provider who had a duty to provide accurate information. The bank, in its ordinary course of business, was supplying information for the guidance of another which it knew would be relying on the information in making its lending decision. In the case before the Court, the bank gave inaccurate credit information about the prospective borrower, which was relied upon by the lender. The information providing bank was held liable for damages.

Example B: Illinois courts have held that a seller’s real estate broker ordinarily has no duty to a prospective buyer to independently substantiate the seller’s representations of fact concerning a property. The seller’s broker is not hired by the buyer to provide information upon which the buyer will be making a home-purchase decision, so the broker has no duty to the buyer. Consequently, it has been held that the buyer has no valid claim against the broker for carelessly providing inaccurate information. However, the broker is not permitted to knowingly provide erroneous information. If the broker knows the information provided is not accurate, but supplies it anyway, the broker may be liable to the buyer for fraudulent misrepresentation.

Example C: Illinois courts have held that a title company hired to perform a judgment and lien search had a duty to provide accurate information to the customer in its judgment and lien search report. This duty existed even though (or, perhaps, because) the title company was not asked to insure its search results or provide the customer with a full abstract of title. In the case under consideration, the report failed to disclose a mortgage recorded against the property. Had the customer (a lender) been able to prove it relied on the judgment and lien search to its detriment, the title company may likely have been held liable for negligent representation in providing inaccurate information. The customer was not able to prove reliance, however, and the case was dismissed.

Note that in Example C, above, the title company was asked merely to search the public records and provide information as to the existence or non-existence of judgments or liens. The title company was not asked to provide title insurance.

Title companies are tricky because, at first glance, it would seem that one of the main aspects of a title company’s business is to provide information about real property titles that customers use to make buying or lending decisions. However, the type of service being performed by the title company is an important factor. Illinois courts have held that when issuing a commitment for title insurance (a “title commitment”), the title company is not an information provider, but rather a provider of title insurance products. Because the essential characteristic of a title commitment is an agreement to provide insurance against the risk that a claim will be made against title which is inconsistent with the status of title as insured by the title commitment (and subsequently issued title policy), the title company issuing the title commitment is in the business of selling an insurance product, rather than being an information provider. It is therefore not bound by the information provider duty to provide accurate information. The undertaking of the title insurance company is to pay a claim under the terms of its title insurance policy for any loss incurred by reason of the status of title not being as insured. Information provided in conjunction with an independently useful product, rather than being provided for the sole purpose of informing, is not within the scope of the duty of information providers to provide accurate information.

Example D: A recent trend in litigation has mortgagors suing lenders and the lender’s designated appraisers for negligent misrepresentation in providing inflated appraisals. At least one recent Illinois case has held that the mortgagor sufficiently plead that the appraiser and the lender were information providers who had a duty to convey accurate information concerning the value of the property because they knew the mortgagor would reasonably rely upon the appraisal report in making her decision to accept the mortgage. The sole purpose of the appraisal is to provide information as to the value of the property.

To some, this may seem like a stretch, but it points out that claims of liability based upon negligent misrepresentation can be a powerful tool in the hands of creative and knowledgeable lawyers.

What does this all mean?

It means that if you rely upon information provided by others as part of their trade or business, you may be able to hold them liable if the information they provide is inaccurate or incomplete and, as a consequence, you suffer a loss.

Conversely, if you are an information provider, it means you had better act diligently in assuring the accuracy and completeness of information you provide to others.

In either case – damages may be recoverable. Liability is recognized by Illinois courts. Inaccurate information, whether given or withheld, intentionally or through negligence, may enable the person or business that justifiably relies upon that information to recover damages.

The claim is real.

Thank you for reading my post.

Diana H. Psarras