Professional negligence is a fact of life. Insurance companies know this. Professionals know this. The general public knows this. However, not all professionals are responsible for their own negligence. For some professionals, negligence liability may be curbed for policy reasons. However, this article argues that no such policy reasons exist for limiting the personal liability of a negligent bankruptcy trustee.
Courts treat negligent trustees in one of three ways. The first, and most lenient standard for trustees, is that negligence, whether it be "mere negligence" or "gross negligence" will not subject a trustee to liability. In circuits following this standard, a trustee must take an intentional action in order to be personally liable for that action. This standard evolved from decisions in non-bankruptcy cases regarding immunity for judges and other court-appointed employees.
The second possible standard, which has gained popularity as a "middle-ground" alternative, allows trustees to be liable for gross negligence but not for mere negligence. In so doing, these courts have tried to hold a trustee liable for something less than his or her intentional actions without going so far as to hold a trustee liable for simple, garden-variety negligence.
Finally, some courts hold trustees personally liable for any type of negligence, as well as intentional actions. The rationale for this liability stems from the trustee's role as an attorney, subject to standards of reasonableness in light of the circumstances. This article argues that such a standard should be utilized by all courts in order to promote a fair distribution of bankruptcy assets among the creditors and to comply with public expectations of a trustee's performance. Although ideas of immunity evolve from legal ideas, these ideas are outdated and inapplicable in the context of modern bankruptcy cases. And, while gross negligence offers a middle ground, this article argues that defining professional negligence in terms of a similarly situated bankruptcy trustee obviates the need for such a middle ground.