A recent Delaware Court of Chancery opinion is useful for commercial litigators who encounter the frequent situation where one party is required to use some variation on the standard of “best efforts” to either sell a product or reach certain revenue milestones, for example, in connection with a joint venture or a post-closing earn-out. In BTG International, Inc. v. Wellstat Therapeutics Corporation, C.A. No. 12562-VCL (Del. Ch. Sept. 19, 2017), the court applied the contractually defined standard of “diligent efforts” to the promotion of a pharmaceutical product, in a post-trial opinion. This discussion of the contractually defined standard of diligent efforts is at least generally analogous to other cases highlighted on these pages that address the standard of “reasonable best efforts” or “commercially best efforts” or the like, to perform certain tasks or to reach certain goals. Due to the relative paucity of cases thoroughly analyzing these types of standards, this case will likely be useful to many readers.
Background: This case involved a distribution agreement between two pharmaceutical companies. BTG was the larger company and agreed to promote, distribute and sell a drug called Vistogard, that the smaller Wellstat did not have the resources to promote, distribute and sell. After extensive negotiations, the parties agreed to a contractual definition of “diligent efforts” which BTG was required to employ in order to reach various sales goals for Vistogard. In addition, the parties were required to work together to formulate and finalize a business plan that would describe the details for promoting, distributing and selling Vistogard.
Key Findings: The court found that BTG failed to hire a sufficient number of sales representatives and failed to devote other resources to sell Vistogard, but instead focused most of its efforts and resources on a completely different product in a different division of the company – – with instructions from the CEO to keep the costs flat related to Vistogard and not to increase the resources that were necessary to implement the business plan.
The court found that BTG failed to comply with the contractually defined standard of “diligent efforts” and also breached the agreement by not complying with the business plan that required certain resources, including a sufficient number of sales representatives, to be devoted to the sale of Vistogard.
Legal Analysis: The court provides a useful discussion of the elements of a claim for breach of contract and for awarding damages. The court also took the rare step of shifting fees due to bad faith litigation tactics, and explained its reason for doing so.
The court recited the familiar elements for breach of contract: (1) the existence of a contract, whether expressed or implied; (2) the breach of an obligation imposed by that contract; and (3) the resultant damage to the plaintiff.
BTG took the aggressive approach of filing a declaratory judgment action seeking a declaration that it had not breached the contract. In response, Wellstat asserted a counterclaim for breach of contract. In sum, the court treated the DJ action as a defensive tactic, which failed, in part because Wellstat did not breach the agreement such that it would have excused a performance of BTG.
This 60-page decision provides extensive detailed factual background which is necessary to fully appreciate the court’s thorough analysis. For purposes of this relatively short overview however, the key points in the analysis are based on the court’s finding that BTG failed to devote the necessary resources for Vistogard – – and instead prioritized the sale and promotion of other products of BTG other than Vistogard. In addition to failing to comply with the contractual definition of diligent efforts, BTG also breached the agreement by failing to comply with the business plan that required a minimum amount of resources to be devoted to the sale and promotion of Vistogard.
The court also discussed principles applicable to claims for breach of contract damages. The basic remedy for breach of contract should give the non-breaching party “the benefit of its bargain by putting the party in the position it would have been but for the breach.” See footnote 170. Expectation damages require the breaching party to compensate for the reasonable expectation of the value of the breached contract. These damages are to be measured “as of the time of the breach.” See footnote 172.
Although expectation damages should not act as a windfall, the “injured party need not establish the amount of damages with precise certainty when a wrong has been proven and injury established. Doubts about the extent of damages are generally resolved against the breaching party.” See footnotes 173 through 175.
Moreover the court noted that: “Public policy has led Delaware courts to show a general willingness to make a wrongdoer bear the risk of uncertainty of a damages calculation where the calculation cannot be mathematically proven.” See footnote 175.
The court concluded by taking the unusual step of shifting fees due to bad faith litigation conduct, which included the need during the litigation for Wellstat to file a motion to compel before BTG complied with its discovery obligations, as well as BTG presenting a misleading demonstrative exhibit at trial. See footnotes 216 through 218.
SUPPLEMENT: The Delaware Supreme Court, by Order dated June 11, 2018, affirmed this decision with the exception of one minor point regarding the start date when pre-judgment interest will accrue.