Business litigation often involves allegations that a competitor engaged in unfair competition or business tactics designed to injure the plaintiff’s business. Such cases will only be successful, however, if the defendant business has crossed the line between legitimate competitive activity and tortious conduct. In a new Fourth Circuit opinion written by Judge Mark S. Davis of the Eastern District of Virginia, the court affirmed summary judgment in favor of BMW, explaining that not all aggressive competition will be deemed unfair or unlawful; a competitor pursuing its legitimate business interests will often be permitted to do so without incurring liability.
BCD, LLC v. BMW Mfg. Co. involved a dispute over a project to build a new school of engineering on the Clemson University campus. The plaintiff, Rosen (and the companies controlled by him) and BMW were each involved in different aspects of the construction project. Rosen had entered into a tentative agreement with Clemson in 2002, which outlined the responsibilities each would each have in the construction of a wind tunnel. The agreement was not binding, however, because there remained certain unresolved details, and the written agreement specifically allowed either party to withdraw from the project if they could not agree as to those unresolved details. The agreement was thus in the nature of an “agreement to agree” rather than a final, binding contract.
Clemson and BMW, on the other hand, had entered into a final agreement to which each party was bound, and BMW had received a $25 million grant from the state for the project. As preparation for the construction of the school was getting underway, Rosen declared that he wanted the new school to be built on land he owned, but BMW objected because it wanted to keep the state-funded school separate from the privately-funded wind tunnel. As time wore on, little to no progress was made on the construction of the wind tunnel, and Clemson and Rosen were still unable to come to an agreement on the unresolved details from the 2002 agreement. Finally, Rosen and Clemson signed a new agreement in 2003 that negated the 2002 agreement, resolved all of the details, and included a sale of Rosen’s land to Clemson so the school could be built on land that was now publicly-owned. Rosen did not want to cede control over the property, and felt that BMW coerced Clemson into stalling on the wind tunnel project so BMW could exert control over Rosen’s property. He thus sued BMW for tortious interference with a contract, intentional interference with prospective contractual relations, and civil conspiracy.
The court affirmed summary judgment for BMW on all counts. In doing so, the court explained the legal elements of each of Rosen’s tort claims and explained clearly why the conduct complained of did not satisfy these requirements. (The case was decided under South Carolina law, which is substantially similar to Virginia law in this area).
Dealing first with the tortious interference allegation, the court laid out the elements as: “(1) the existence of the contract; (2) the other party’s knowledge of the contract; (3) the other party’s intentional procurement of a breach of the contract; (4) the absence of justification; and (5) resulting damage.” The court rejected Rosen’s claim because no enforceable contract existed between Rosen and Clemson at the time of the alleged interference. The court noted that because either party could opt out of the 2002 agreement, it was not a binding contract, and without a binding contract, there can be no tortious interference.
The court next tackled the claim of interference with prospective contractual relations. The elements for this tort are: “(1) intentionally interfer[ing] with the plaintiff’s potential contractual relations; (2) for an improper purpose or by improper methods; (3) causing injury to the plaintiff.” The court easily affirmed summary judgment on this count because Rosen had offered no evidence that BMW had utilized improper methods or had taken any action for an improper purpose. The court observed that BMW was merely attempting to further its own business interests by seeking understandably to exercise control over a project in which it was intimately involved. There was no evidence, for example, that BMW had used “violence, threats, bribery, fraud, misrepresentation, deceit, or duress” in the course of affecting Rosen’s relationship with Clemson.
Regarding the conspiracy claim, the court set forth the elements as “(1) a combination of two or more persons, (2) for the purpose of injuring the plaintiff, (3) which causes the plaintiff special damage.” The court found that Rosen had failed to meet his burden to produce evidence that BMW’s actions were taken for the purpose of causing injury to Rosen. Rather, it appeared from the evidence that BMW was merely acting to protect the interests all competitors in a capitalistic economy share: to succeed in business, which often comes at the cost of the competitor.
The court affirmed judgment in BMW’s favor, finding insufficient evidence to hold BMW liable on any of Rosen’s business-tort theories. The court reasoned that to punish BMW for pursuing its legitimate business interests would be to indict our entire economic system.