Economic torts: protect your business from unlawful interference

Last updated: 10 September 2021

Estimated reading time: 6 minutes

Member View

Economic torts (torts relating to the protection of unacceptable harm being caused to your business) permit a loss suffering party to seek damages from the wrongdoer, even where a third party stands in the middle and is seemingly responsible for the loss.

Although the reality is that today’s economy drives people to be competitive, the result is that another business may cause harm to yours in ways such as stealing a valuable employee, providing false information or interfering with your business’ future economic gains. As touched upon already, economic torts seek to offer protection for your trade or business from acts of objectionable interference.   

In this guide we’ll examine unlawful interference with businesses, including the economic torts of procuring a breach of contract and causing loss by unlawful means.

We'll consider:

  1. What is the economic tort of procuring a breach of contract?
  2. How does a claim under this tort arise?
  3. What is the economic tort of causing loss by unlawful means?
  4. Distinguishing between the concepts of ‘primary’ and ‘secondary’ liability
  5. What are the elements of inducing a breach of contract?
  6. What are the elements of causing loss by unlawful means?
  7. Is there any defence?

If an act of unacceptable interference is committed against your business, before submitting a claim it’s vital to understand the distinction between the two separate torts of:

  • Procuring a breach of contract
  • Causing loss by unlawful means

What is the economic tort of procuring a breach of contract?

Where someone commits a breach of contract against you, you will have a claim against that person for breach of contract. However, in the event of an incomplete agreement or in the absence of a contract between you and the other party, you can protect your rights and interests by relying on the economic tort of procuring a breach of contract, also referred to as ‘inducing’ (i.e. causing) a breach of contract.

How does a claim under this tort arise?

A claim under this tort arises when the wrongdoer intentionally and knowingly causes loss to another party (you) by interfering with their (your) contractual relations.

Example: A causes third party B to commit a breach of contract against C, and A had the intention of causing the breach of contract. In such circumstances, C is not limited to claiming against A, but can also claim against B. 

What is the economic tort of causing loss by unlawful means?

Causing loss by unlawful means exists where the defendant – the wrongdoer – deliberately and wrongfully interferes with the actions of a third party in which you have an economic interest, with the intention to cause loss, and as a result, loss occurs. One important thing to highlight is thatthe existence of a contractual relationship is not necessary to establish a claim against the defendant.

This is because the intention to cause damage to you in any form, including economic damage, is enough.

Example: A does and/or threatens to do something unlawful to B. As a result, B never enters into a contract with C, when B would otherwise have done so. A acts with the intention of causing loss to C.

Distinguishing between the concepts of ‘primary’ and ‘secondary’ liability

Causing loss by unlawful means is a tort of primary liability. Proof of independently unlawful conduct is required in such cases.

Inducing or ‘procuring’ a breach of contract is a tort of secondary or accessory liability. This means that proof of an actual breach of contract is required.

Both economic torts can arise in a wide variety of contracts or business relationships, such as employment, property, banking, finance and construction. An experienced business disputes solicitor will provide expert advice if you end up in a situation where you’ve suffered loss as a result of a third party wrongdoer’s actions.

What are the elements of inducing a breach of contract?

This tort has four elements:

  • Knowledge of the contract. The defendant must be aware of the contract you are claiming is being breached. Consequently, there need not be knowledge of the precise terms of the contract, but an appreciation of the broad nature of the contractual relationship is required. It’s important to point out that you will not be able to defend the claim if you have deliberately turned a blind eye by making a conscious decision not to enquire into whether the relevant act would amount to a breach.   
  • Intention to breach the contract. The defendant must intend to breach the contract, or cause its breach and to cause economic harm. It is not enough for the breach to occur from the natural consequences of the defendant’s conduct or because the defendant acted carelessly; nor will the defendant be liable if unintentionally or unknowingly procuring a breach of contract.
  • Actual breach of contract. Fundamentally speaking, a contract must exist for the breach to occur. The contract must be valid and enforceable. For this reason, it’s vital to get expert advice and carefully analyse if, technically speaking in the eyes of the law, there has been a breach of contract before pursuing a claim.
  • Interference with another’s contract. It must be established that the other contractual party was persuaded to breach the contract. The most effective way to prove this point is by determining that there have been inconsistent dealings between the first contract and the second contract.

Example: you had an exclusive relationship with a supplier and that supplier has an exclusive relationship with someone else for similar services. You can infer that the third party’s exclusive relationship with your supply has been involved in procuring the breach of contract.   

What are the elements of causing loss by unlawful means?

This tort also has four elements:

  • Interference with trade or business. A trade or business interest is a wide term and is protecting the economic interests of the claimant (i.e. your business). There is no need for a breach of contract to occur in this instance. Interference with the operation of the business is sufficient to cause loss by unlawful means. The act of interference must have the effect of hindering the normal operation of the business.

Note: A non-exclusive list of examples that qualify as economic interests are things such as: employment of an employee; the ability to freely market or advertise goods or services to potential customers; acquiring essential goods or services; hiring business; ability of a media outlet to publish or broadcast to the public.

  • Use of unlawful means against a third party. The loss suffered by the defendant’s action must be both unlawful in respect to the third party and actionable by the third party. For this reason, criminal conduct is not actionable.
  • Intention to injure the claimant. Unlike the tort of procuring a breach of contract, there need not be any intention to cause a breach of contract. Establishing economic expectations is a sufficient foundation for a claim. The loss must be a foreseeable consequence of the defendant’s actions. So, a defendant is not liable for a loss that is neither a desired end nor a means of attaining it.      
  • Occurrence of damages. You must show as the claimant that some loss has stemmed from the action. 

Is there any defence?

The only defence available is justification.

For justification to be a valid defence, it must be shown that the defendant’s interference with another party’s contract was to protect an equal or superior right of their own. However, justification must be based on a duty and not merely to protect the defendant’s own interests.

The defence of justification is highly fact-specific. Relevant factors may include the nature of the breach of contract, the position of the parties and the grounds for the breach.

Back to table of contents

What next?

If you’re concerned about loss caused to your business due to third party interference our commercial solicitors and business dispute experts can offer support. Get in touch on 0800 689 1700, email us at enquiries@hjsolicitors.co.uk or fill out the short form below with your enquiry.

  • Your data will only be used by Harper James Solicitors. We will never sell your data and promise to keep it secure. You can find further information in our privacy policy.

  • This field is for validation purposes and should be left unchanged.

A national law firm

We mainly work remotely, so we can work with you wherever you are. But we can arrange face-to-face meeting at our offices or a location of your choosing.

Our commercial lawyers are based in or close to major cities across the UK, providing expert legal advice to clients both locally and nationally.

Floor 2, Cavendish House, 39-41 Waterloo Street, Birmingham, B2 5PP
Stirling House, Cambridge Innovation Park, Denny End Road, Waterbeach, Cambridge, CB25 9QE
10 Fitzroy Square, London, W1T 5HP
13th Floor, Piccadilly Plaza, Manchester, M1 4BT
Harwell Innovation Centre, 173 Curie Avenue, Harwell, Oxfordshire, OX11 0QG
2-5 Velocity Tower, 1 St Mary’s Square, Sheffield, S1 4LP
Like what you're reading?

Like what you're reading? Get new articles delivered to your inbox

Join 8,153 entrepreneurs reading our latest news, guides and insights.

Subscribe