Chapter 04 - Legal Liability of CPAs
4-1 through 4-19, 4-22, 4-24, 4-25, 4-28 through 4-31, 4-33, 4-34, 4-37
Legal Liability of CPAs
There are several reasons why the potential legal liability of CPAs for professional "malpractice"
exceeds that of physicians and other professionals. One reason is the vast number of people who may
If a physician or attorney commits a serious error, the number of injured parties
generally is limited to one individual patient or client.
When a CPA's report is in error, literally
millions of investors may sustain losses.
Second, the federal Securities Acts regarding CPAs' liability are unique in that much of the
burden of proof is shifted to the defendant.
Normally, defendants are "presumed innocent until
proven guilty." Under the federal Securities Acts, however, CPAs charged with "malpractice" must
prove their innocence.
Finally, when investors sustain losses in the many millions of dollars, the economics of the
situation dictates bringing suit against the CPAs even if the prospects for recovery appear remote.
When the possible dollar recovery is smaller, which usually is the case in other professional
malpractice suits, the plaintiffs are more likely to be deterred from filing suit simply by the costs of
Ordinary negligence means lack of reasonable care. Gross negligence means lack of even slight care,
indicative of reckless disregard for duty.
An oversight by a CPA resulting in a misstatement in a
financial statement might be considered ordinary negligence, whereas if a CPA failed substantially to
comply with generally accepted auditing standards the charge might be gross negligence.
Privity is the relationship between parties to a contract.
A CPA firm is in privity with the client
which it is serving, as well as with any third party beneficiary, such as a creditor bank named in the
engagement letter (the contract between the CPA firm and its client).
Under common law, if the
auditors do not comply with their obligations to the client, resulting in damages, the client may sue
and recover its losses by proving that the auditors were negligent in performing their duties under the
A third-party beneficiary is a person other than the contracting parties who is named in the contract or
intended by the contracting parties to have definite rights and benefits under the contract.
example, a bank would be a third party beneficiary if the auditors and the client agreed that the
purpose of the audit was to provide the bank with an audit report to make a bank loan to the client.
Common law is unwritten law that has developed through court decisions; it represents judicial
interpretation of a society's concept of fairness.
Statutory law is law that has been adopted by a
governmental unit, such as the federal government.