In law, a civil conspiracy refers to collusion between two or more individuals or entities that share a common plan to commit an illegal or wrongful act that leads to an illegal or unjust end result. In many cases involving a civil conspiracy, the common objective of the conspiracy is to deceive, cheat, or defraud a third party. The legal elements required to bring an action include not only the collective agreement of the conspirators to commit the act, but also damage to a third party directly as a result of the action taken. In the event that the damaged party files a lawsuit, the principle of civil conspiracy presumes liability upon all co-conspirators involved in the plan, whether or not each one individually had anything to do with the actual commission of the act. In other words, all participants in the plot are equally guilty of and liable for the actions of any one of the conspirators, who acts in accordance with the common plan.
Plaintiffs cannot properly claim a civil conspiracy unless the accused parties engage in an illegal or wrongful action. The conspiracy itself cannot harm a third person, unless one or more of the participants take overt steps pursuant to the plan. In some cases, the plaintiff must prove that the conspirators knew or should have known the immediate and proximal impact that the actions would have on others. In addition, the plaintiff must establish that one or more of the co-conspirators owed the plaintiff a duty recognized by law, which the wrongful conduct breached.
These types of lawsuits are prevalent in various forms of business litigation. For example, several class action suits against tobacco, equipment, or pharmaceutical companies allege civil conspiracy to mislead the public about health effects, hazards, side effects, and other unfavorable information concerning their products. In addition, the United States Department of Justice (DOJ) and the Securities Exchange Commission (SEC) frequently engage in legal suits when companies, such as banks, violate the securities laws or engage in securities fraud. Federal courts, in accordance with the U.S. Sherman Antitrust Act, are the venue for many price-fixing, monopoly, group boycott, and predatory pricing cases.
In many states, plaintiffs are restricted from joining company directors and officers as defendants in a case unless the officers received a personal benefit from the conspiracy distinct from that obtained by the company. Other states do allow these officers, as well as external attorneys, accountants, and other agents to be implicated in a conspiracy lawsuit. Most courts presume company liability when the officers participate in a civil conspiracy. If the officers acted in a way that harmed the interests of the company, however, then the courts may not hold the company liable for the actions of the officers, who are sued directly as individuals.