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Smith v. Van Gorkom (Del. 1985)

This is the one case where Delaware courts imposed monetary liability on disinterested directors for breach of the duty of care. It caused a storm. Liability insurance rates for directors skyrocketed. The Delaware legislature intervened by enacting DGCL 102(b)(7), which allows exculpatory charter provisions to eliminate damages for breaches of the duty of care (see next section). Such charter provisions are now standard. Even without them, however, it is unlikely that a Delaware court would impose liability on these facts today. The courts seem to have retrenched — not in their doctrine but in how they apply it. Cf. Disney below.

You should, therefore, read the case not as an exemplary application of the duty of care, but as a policy experiment that showed that corporate law practitioners and lawmakers regard monetary damages on these facts as undesirable. Why?

Background: the Acquisition Process (more in M&A, infra)

The case involves the acquisition of the Trans Union Corporation by Marmon Group, Inc. As is typical, the acquisition is structured as a merger. The acquired corporation (the “target”) merges with the acquiror (the “buyer”) or one of the buyer's subsidiaries. In the merger, shares in the target are extinguished. In exchange, target shareholders receive cash or other consideration (usually shares in the buyer).

Under most U.S. statutes such as DGCL 251, the merger generally requires a merger agreement between the buyer and the target to be approved by the boards and a majority of the shareholders of each corporation. This entails two important consequences.

First, the board controls the process because only the board can have the corporation enter into the merger agreement. This is one example of why it is at least misleading to call shareholders the “owners of the corporation.”

Two, in public corporations, the requirement of shareholder approval means that several months will pass between signing the merger agreement and completion of the merger. This is the time it takes to convene the shareholder meeting and solicit proxies in accordance with the applicable corporate law and SEC proxy rules. Of course, many things can happen during this time. In particular, other potential buyers may appear on the scene.


1. According to the majority opinion, what did the directors do wrong? In other words, what should the directors have done differently? Why did the business judgment rule not apply?

2. What are the dissenters’ counter-arguments?

3. How do you think directors in other companies reacted to this decision — what, if anything, did they most likely do differently after Van Gorkom?