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Unrecognized liability risks: What GmbH managing directors need to know


In a recent conversation with a client, the topic of liability risks for managing directors of a limited liability company came up. This conversation inspired me to take a comprehensive look at the issue and shed light on some of the less obvious risks CEOs face. As an IT lawyer with a strong focus on corporate law and management consulting, I have a deep insight into the various facets of liability associated with the role of a director. In today’s issue, I will discuss this important topic to inform you about the unrecognized risks and practical solutions.

Personal liability in the event of financial bottlenecks

Especially in young companies or start-ups, the financial situation is often tight. These companies are in a phase of growth that involves significant expenditures. Managing directors, who are often closely associated with the founding of their company, tend to bridge financial bottlenecks with private capital or personally guarantee company liabilities. This is a reflection of their commitment and desire to move the company forward. However, they often overlook the fact that in such cases they assume personal liability that can far exceed the company’s assets. The consequences can be serious, both financially and legally, and in the worst case, can even lead to personal ruin. A clear separation of corporate and personal assets is therefore essential to limit personal liability. Early legal advice can be crucial in this regard and help to protect both the personal assets of the managing director and the assets of the company.

Compliance violations

Another unrecognized risk factor in the management of a GmbH is the neglect of compliance guidelines. In the hectic day-to-day business, legal requirements or internal company compliance guidelines can easily fade into the background. Prioritizing immediate business needs often seems more urgent than following compliance guidelines. But failure to comply can have serious consequences. In the event of violations, there is not only the threat of severe fines that can burden the company financially, but also personal liability on the part of the managing director. The scope of personal liability can be significant depending on the severity of the violation and the size of the company. It is therefore essential to acquire a solid knowledge of the relevant compliance requirements and to ensure that they are implemented and adhered to within the company. Ongoing training and awareness of compliance issues is critical to drive awareness and compliance. By establishing appropriate control mechanisms and regularly reviewing compliance, legal pitfalls can be avoided and responsible management behavior can be promoted.

Misjudgment of contract risks

The misjudgment of contractual risks represents another liability risk that should not be underestimated. CEOs are often optimistic about their company’s performance, entering into contractual commitments that the company may not be able to fulfill later. While this optimistic attitude can lead to positive business deals, it also carries the risk of potential legal consequences. Should the company have to pay contractual penalties or become involved in legal disputes as a result of such a misjudgement, the managing director is personally liable. This can lead to significant financial burdens and reputational damage that can far exceed the original contract value. Careful risk analysis before entering into significant contracts is therefore essential to fully understand the impact of potential breaches. Through prudent contract review and drafting, directors can create a legally secure framework that allows the company to enter into commitments without taking disproportionate risks.

Shortfall due to D&O insurance

D&O insurance (Directors and Officers Liability Insurance) is an insurance policy that can protect directors and officers from personal liability claims arising from their activities. However, this insurance is often very expensive and not always offered by insurance companies, especially for startups or smaller companies with limited financial resources. Even if D&O insurance is taken out, the coverage amount is often not adjusted to the actual risk, which can lead to undercoverage. Cost-benefit consideration and careful review of policy terms and conditions are therefore critical to ensure that the insurance provides adequate protection.

Risks in connection with the obligation to file for insolvency

Another significant liability risk for managing directors arises from the obligation to file for insolvency, which is a central duty within the scope of managing directors’ activities. Pursuant to Section 15a of the German Insolvency Code (InsO), managing directors are obliged to file for insolvency without delay, but within three weeks at the latest, if the company becomes insolvent or overindebted. This provision is intended to protect creditors from further financial losses and to ensure the integrity of the economic system. Failure to fulfill this legal obligation in a timely manner may result in personal liability of the managing director. This is stipulated in Section 823 of the German Civil Code, which states that anyone who intentionally or negligently breaches the obligation to file an insolvency petition can be held liable for the resulting damage. In addition, criminal penalties may be imposed in accordance with § 15a para. 4 InsO and Section 84 GmbHG, which in the worst case can lead to imprisonment. The criminal consequences emphasize the serious nature of the insolvency filing obligation and the need for directors to always be aware of their company’s financial condition. Early legal advice can help business leaders better understand their obligations and the potential consequences of their actions. Furthermore, careful monitoring of the company’s financial situation is crucial in order to identify insolvency or overindebtedness at an early stage. Collaboration with financial experts and the implementation of robust financial control systems can be supportive. Through prudent financial management and a precise knowledge of legal obligations, managing directors can significantly reduce their liability risks and avoid legal pitfalls. This not only minimizes personal liability, but also promotes the long-term stability and success of the company.

Duty to notify in the event of defective solvency

Likewise, an incorrect assessment of the company’s solvency can entail significant liability risks for the managing director. Pursuant to Section 64 Sentence 1 of the German Limited Liability Companies Act (GmbHG), managing directors are obliged to closely monitor the financial situation of the company and to take appropriate measures if insolvency is imminent. According to Section 17 of the German Insolvency Code (InsO), insolvency exists if the company is unable to meet its payment obligations as they fall due. This is a serious situation that requires immediate action.

Over-indebtedness is another critical financial situation defined in Section 19 InsO. It exists when the company’s assets no longer cover its existing liabilities. Both situations, insolvency and overindebtedness, can trigger the obligation to file for insolvency pursuant to Section 15a InsO.

Failure to comply with this obligation may result in personal liability of the managing director. This liability is governed by Section 823 of the German Civil Code, which provides for liability for damages arising from breach of duty. In addition, criminal penalties may be imposed in accordance with § 15a para. 4 InsO and Section 84 GmbHG, which in the worst case can lead to imprisonment.

To avoid such liability risks, an accurate and timely assessment of the company’s financial situation is essential. Directors should be aware of the differences between insolvency and over-indebtedness, and seek legal advice as needed.

Furthermore, it is advisable to prepare regular financial reports and have them audited by external experts. This can help to identify financial risks at an early stage and take appropriate measures to avert possible insolvency.

By acting proactively, having a sound knowledge of the relevant legal regulations and being prepared to call on external expertise, managing directors can secure the company’s financial stability and minimize liability risks.

Personal liability for tax debts and social security contributions

A particularly critical aspect of managing director liability concerns personal liability for tax debts and social security contributions of the company. Managing directors are personally responsible for ensuring that all taxes and social security contributions are paid correctly and on time. If these payments are not made or are made incompletely, the competent authorities may hold the managing director personally liable. This can have far-reaching financial consequences and significantly jeopardize the personal assets of the managing director. To minimize this risk, accurate record keeping and regular consultation with tax experts is essential.

Marian Härtel

Marian Härtel

Marian Härtel is a lawyer and entrepreneur specializing in copyright law, competition law and IT/IP law, with a focus on games, esports, media and blockchain.


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