Piercing the corporate veil describes a legal decision to treat the rights or duties of a corporation as the rights or liabilities of its shareholders or directors. Usually a corporation is treated as a separate legal person, which is solely responsible for the debts it incurs and the sole beneficiary of the credit it is owed. Common law countries usually uphold this principle of separate personhood, but in exceptional situations may "pierce" or "lift" the corporate veil. A simple example would be where a businessman has left his job as a director and has signed a contract to not compete with the company he has just left for a period of time. If he set up a company which competed with his former company, technically it would be the company and not the person competing. But it is likely a court would say that the new company was just a "sham", a "fraud" or some other phrase, and would still allow the old company to sue the man for breach of contract. A court would look beyond the "legal fiction" to the reality of the situation.
Piercing the corporate veil is not the only means by which a director or officer of a corporation can be held liable for the actions of the corporation. Liability can be established through conventional theories of contract, agency, or tort law. For example, in situations where a director or officer acting on behalf of a corporation personally commits a tort, he and the corporation are jointly liable and it is unnecessary to discuss the issue of piercing the corporate veil. The doctrine is often used in cases where liability is found, but the corporation is insolvent.
Corporations exist in part to shield the personal assets of shareholders from personal liability for the debts or actions of a corporation. Unlike a general partnership or sole proprietorship in which the owner could be held responsible for all the debts of the corporation, a corporation traditionally limited the personal liability of the shareholders. The limits of...
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