Franchisor – Franchisee Risk in Canada

May 27, 2011

I have heard many people complain about Tim Hortons donuts being smaller than the competition, and that “always fresh” donuts (actually it is doughnuts) actually means “recently frozen”, but most of us wish we owned THI shares (trading at a 53 wk HI with a 36% increase over this time last year and a 55% increase over two years.)

However, there is a group who is not very happy about it. A (small) group of franchisees filed a $1.95 billion class-action lawsuit against Tim Hortons claiming breach of contract, breach of duty of fair dealing, negligent misrepresentation, and unjust enrichment stemming from Hortons’ conversion to frozen donuts. As with many franchisee claims, they seem to have a problem with inflated prices within the mandatory supply agreements. MACLEANS.ca released an article, here, in September last year, on the suit and the connections within the class action claim. They followed-up with a second article, here, a few weeks ago because the corporation provided a breakdown of average store profits. Please note this action has not been certified and the court has not ruled on the defendants’ motion for summary judgment.

It will be interesting to see if the court takes one look at the growth in per store profit since the introduction of the frozen product strategy and class action claim. But, the most important thing about this action is the risks it identifies for other franchisor entities. Outside of the almost $2 billion demand, the legal costs, distraction of management, franchisee infighting and the extraordinary reputational damage, actual loss will be difficult to measure. In the Tim Hortons case, a separate group of franchisees incurred considerable legal costs in an attempt to seek intervenor status, here, in the class action so they could argue against the certification of the action and protect private information and their corporate brand. Their motion was denied.

Franchisee – Franchisor risks are different from non-franchise operations, because franchise companies have the same exposures to property loss, general liability lawsuits, management liability, shareholder lawsuits, and employment practices and crime risk as any other operation, but they have a unique supportive / hostile relationship with their key business partner. The business model can be extraordinarily successful, and Tim Hortons is a textbook example, growing from one Canadian coffee shop in 1964 to 3,000 Canadian and 600 US stores today. But success can bread contempt and recent or ongoing franchise cases include the likes of Tim Hortons, Midas Inc., Quiznos, General Motors and Shoppers Drug Mart (see Financial Post, here.)

Managing franchise risks may come down to communication.

Risk management by contract language can be a mine field. Simple contract language may not provide the protection that many franchisors expect because language prohibiting class actions is common but the courts are still certifying national class actions. I do not suggest removing the language, just do not rely on it as your only form of risk management.

Another form of risk management could come from pre-screening potential franchisees. Myers Briggs and other personality tests are very common for large organizations, but there are now test specifically designed to measure future success of potential franchisees (here.) Individual franchisees may be more interested in starting a claim or participating in a class action if their individual franchise is not as successfully as other operations. It is easier to accuse the franchisor of collusion or negligence than it is to recognize that they are not cut-out to be a franchise owner.

Franchisor liability insurance is available in the insurance marketplace in Canada. It can respond to claims made by franchisees alleging breach of contract, breach of duty of fair dealing, negligent misrepresentation, and unjust enrichment. Limits of liability can be available from $1 million to $25 million or more, but large limits may become prohibitively expensive. The value of this insurance is not only in its response to defence costs, settlements or court awards, but also the support in the claim. One major issue for franchisors, is that they may not have the time and experience needed to find the best, non-conflicted, and most experience counsel available for their case. The lawyers who helped draft contract language may not have litigation defence experience, or may be conflicted out of handling your defence if their contract language has any connection to the underlying allegations. The insurance can also have a calming effect on public reaction to news of a lawsuit, because stakeholders are comforted to know that there will be at least some insurance in place to cover losses.  Finally, the value of any franchise is the ongoing relationship between franchisee and franchisor. A third party insurer being inserted into a dispute between franchisee and franchisor can help maintain the long-term relationships between the parties.

A few words of caution regarding insurance coverage: 1) a D&O policy is not designed to coverage the vast majority of total loss from a franchisee vs franchisor lawsuit, 2) you should determine the appropriate insurance broker based on experience, independence and effort, but only let one broker approach and negotiate with potential insurers, 3) don’t make assumptions about what the policies cover, ask questions and discuss claim scenarios and policy exclusions with your broker.

If you would like more information on franchise liability insurance please don’t hesitate to contact me directly, Greg Shields, Partner, Mitchell Sandham Insurance Services, gshields@mitchellsandham.com, or at 416 862-5626.

CAUTION: This is not an exhaustive list of definitions, duties, liabilities, limitations, defences, or suggested actions. The information contained in the Mitchell Sandham website or blog does not constitute a legal opinion or insurance advice and must not be construed as such. It is important to always consult a registered insurance broker and a lawyer who is a member of the Bar or Law Society of the relevant jurisdiction with regard to this material before making any insurance or legal decisions. All material is copyrighted by Mitchell Sandham Inc. and may not be reproduced in any form for commercial purposes without the express written consent of Mitchell Sandham Inc. Anyone seeking to link this site from any external website must receive the consent of Mitchell Sandham Inc. by sending an e-mail to gshields@mitchellsandham.com

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