Outsourcing Providers Pitching Business? Be Careful What You Wish For.

As far back as May 2005, Legal Bytes reported that Europe was becoming a major outsourcing hub for a variety of reasons (Outsourcing Statistics). Well just this week, the law started catching up.

In what is certainly a major ruling and quite possibly the beginning of emboldened plaintiff-customers seeking greater accountability from outsourcing providers, Electronic Data Systems (EDS) has lost a case initiated by British Sky Broadcasting Plc (BSkyB) back in 2004, alleging that EDS, one of the leading outsourcing providers in the world, had misled BSkyB about its capabilities and expertise. For those of you who are legal research hounds, the case is cited as HT-06-311, British Sky Broadcasting v. Electronic Data Systems, although I don’t believe it has been fully published yet. The dispute arose over a services contract that was entered into by EDS and BSkyB in 2000, well before EDS was purchased in 2008 by its current owner, Hewlett-Packard (HP), for slightly more than US$13 billion.

To give you the background, BSkyB selected EDS to develop a new customer relationship management (CRM) system for its call centers in Scotland. After almost two years and failure by EDS to deliver, by March 2002, BSkyB ended the contract and took over the project itself – the frustration and events ultimately leading to the legal proceedings filed in 2004 that alleged EDS lied about its ability to undertake and complete the project. On the other side of the case, in its own court documents, EDS alleged that BSkyB simply “did not know what it wanted,” and wanted the lowest cost possible to accomplish “it.” To highlight the disconnect further, the contract with EDS was for £48 million, but according to court documents filed in the case, with all of the delays, budget over-runs, EDS’ failure to deliver, and BSkyB taking over and completing the project itself, costs had mounted to £265 million.

Justice Ramsey, writing for the British High Court, ruled that EDS misled BSkyB in making false and fraudulent misrepresentations in pitching and marketing its capabilities to BSkyB, giving rise to a claim for damages. Further, the court concluded, to the extent these representations were fraudulent, the limitation of liability clause in the contract that would have otherwise limited EDS’ liability for damages should be set aside and does not apply. While damages have not yet been fixed, in theory, if one includes the differential in costs, lost profits and other damages that are now fair game, EDS could be liable to BSkyB for well in excess of £200 million – that’s more than US$315 million at current exchange rates.

This is a major decision not only in the UK, but also for outsourcing deals around the globe, and if the beginning of a precedential trend, it could signal a radical shift in the way outsourcing deals are bid, negotiated and consummated. There is no question that anyone involved in outsourcing knows that the customer does not always have its specifications and detailed requirements buttoned up when discussions begin. Indeed, outsourcing often presents a singularity at which time enhancements, efficiencies and improvements that might have been difficult or impossible internally, can be effected by moving the operations to a third-party provider. The provider, eager to win a lucrative bid, may over-promise or over-represent its experience and capabilities. Smart negotiators know that forcing both sides to diligently and meticulously work through the “devil in the detail,” and making sure expectations, resources and capabilities are clearly set out and unambiguous, is the single most important contribution to be made in avoiding disputes, potential litigation and problems as the work and services unfold. Those of you in marketing know all too well that there is often a fine line between an actual claim and puffery. The former represents actionable representations, the latter . . . well, “you’ve tried the rest, now try the best” on every pizza box in the world.

Are you contemplating a major outsourcing initiative? Are you considering any outsourcing project, even a small one, involving critical operations – customer services, supply chain management, operations, transaction processing? Outsourcing is complicated. Need help? We wrote the book. No really, you can see for yourself: Outsourcing Agreements Line by Line: A Detailed Look at Outsourcing Agreements & How to Change Them to Fit Your Needs, written by none other than yours truly, Joseph I. Rosenbaum. Whether you check out the book or not, if you do need help, our Advertising Technology & Media law team here at Rimon has the help you need to make sure that, even if you are right, you can avoid the costly consequences and angst inherent in any legal proceedings between customers and providers. How can we help you? Call me, Joe Rosenbaum, or the Rimon attorney with whom you regularly work.