This Article analyzes the degree to which outside directors of public companies are exposed to out-of-pocket liability risk--the risk of paying legal expenses or damages pursuant to a judgment or settlement agreement that are not fully paid by the company or another source, or covered by directors' and officers' (D&O) liability insurance. Recent settlements in securities class actions involving WorldCom and Enron, in which lead plaintiffs succeeded in extracting out-of-pocket payments from outside directors, have led to predictions that such payments will become common. We analyze the out-of-pocket liability risk facing outside directors empirically, legally, and conceptually and show that this risk is very low, far lower than many commentators and board members believe, notwithstanding the WorldCom and Enron settlements. Our extensive search for instances in which outside directors of public companies have made out-of-pocket payments turned up thirteen cases in the last twenty-five years. Most involve fact patterns that should not recur today for a company with a state-of-the-art D&O insurance policy.
We offer a detailed assessment of the liability risk outside directors face in trials under corporate and securities law, including settlement dynamics. We argue that, going forward, if a company has a D&O policy with appropriate coverage and sensible limits, outside directors will be potentially vulnerable to out-of-pocket liability only when (1) the company is insolvent and the expected damage award exceeds those limits, (2) the case includes a substantial claim under section 11 of the Securities Act or an unusually strong section 10(b) claim, and (3) there is an alignment between outside directors' or other defendants' culpability and their wealth. Absent facts that fit or approach this "perfect-storm" scenario, directors with state-of-the-art insurance policies face little out-of-pocket liability risk, and even in a perfect storm they may not face out-of-pocket liability. The principal threats to outside directors who perform poorly are the time, aggravation, and potential harm to reputation that a lawsuit can entail, not direct financial loss.