Donegal Investment v Danbywiske: Trial judge must explain reasons for disregarding expert evidence

Here, the Supreme Court (Clarke J writing) held that the High Court trial judge (McGovern J) erred by not expressly explaining his reasoning for adopting a different approach for the valuation of shares to that proposed by expert evidence by either parties to the dispute.

 

Background

The background to these proceedings are explained in the Court of Appeal judgment (here). The parties are shareholders in a holding company, Elst, which owns Monaghan Mushrooms. Donegal issued High Court proceedings under s 205 of the Companies Act (shareholder oppression). The High Court ordered that Danbywiske purchase Donegal’s shares.

In the High Court (here), McGovern J heard expert evidence from both sides but chose a different method of valuation from either of the proposed methods. He ordered that Danbywiske pay Donegal €30.6 million for its 30% share in Elst.

The Court of Appeal overturned that valuation and ordered that the case be returned to the High Court for a determination of value. The CoA held that McGovern had not adequately explained his reasons for reaching his determination on value. Danbywiske applied to the Supreme Court for leave to appeal that decision.

The Supreme Court granted leave on three questions:

(a) Whether the principles set out in Hay v O’Grady as to the limits of an appellate court’s review of fact apply both generally and to expert testimony and, as such, constitute a complete code which cannot be departed from?

(b) Whether these principles were departed from in the rulings of the Court of Appeal on the findings of fact in the High Court relating to share valuation?

(c) Does the costs order of the Court of Appeal require to be reviewed?

Dismissing the appeal the Supreme Court stated:

9.1 For the reasons set out in this judgment I am satisfied that it is open to a trial judge to adopt a methodology or approach which differs from each of the approaches advocated in the expert testimony tendered by the parties. However, where a trial judge is persuaded to adopt a different approach, it is necessary for the judge to structure the judgment in such a way that either expressly explains why the approach adopted is considered to be appropriate notwithstanding the expert evidence tendered or that, at a minimum, the reasoning of the trial judge in that regard can be inferred with some reasonable level of confidence.

9.2 There is even some doubt as to the precise approach actually adopted by the trial judge in this case. But even if the approach actually adopted can be inferred to a sufficient level of confidence, I am satisfied that the Court of Appeal was correct to hold that the reasons why the trial judge utilised the approach which he did are neither clear from the judgment nor can safely be inferred.

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