Although we all think we know what a waste is, the concept of corporate waste has a very specific meaning. As a legal standard, corporate waste claims are – along with good faith claims – among some of the hardest claims for plaintiffs to succeed on. Chancellor Allen observed that a successful waste claim is much like the Loch Ness monster:
“[T]he waste theory represents a theoretical exception to the statement very rarely encountered in the world of real transactions. There surely are cases of fraud; of unfair self dealing and, much more rarely negligence. But rarest of all — and indeed like Nessie [of Loch Ness fame], possibly non existent — would be the case of disinterested business people making non fraudulent deals (non-negligently) that meet the legal standard of waste!” (Steiner v. Meyerson, Del. Ch., C.A. No. 13139, Allen, C. (July 18, 1995), Mem. Op. at 2, 1995 WL 441999.)
The judicial standard for determination of corporate waste is well developed. A waste entails an exchange of corporate assets for consideration so disproportionately small as to lie beyond the range at which any reasonable person might be willing to trade. Most often the claim is associated with a transfer of corporate assets that serves no corporate purpose; or for which no consideration at all is received. Such a transfer is in effect a gift. If, however, there is any substantial consideration received by the corporation, and if there is a good faith judgment that in the circumstances the transaction is worthwhile, there should be no finding of waste, even if the fact finder would conclude ex post that the transaction was unreasonably risky. Courts are ill-fitted to attempt to weigh the “adequacy” of consideration under the waste standard or, ex post, to judge appropriate degrees of business risk (Lewis v. Vogelstein, 699 A. 2d 327, 336 (1997).
Nevertheless, corporate waste claims are not uncommon. In recent years, plaintiffs have brought many corporate waste claims against boards for their executive compensation practices. Few – if any – of these claims are ever successful.