It all started in 1905 with the lawsuit Smith v. London Assurance Corporation whereby an auditor was held liable for failing to audit its client’s branch office and detecting embezzlement.

Now more than 100 years later, the legal liability of auditors in detecting corporate fraud  will be decided in two cases that were heard on Tuesday, September 14, 2010, in the New York Court of Appeals, potentially increasing the Big Four accountants’ exposure to multibillion-dollar shareholder lawsuits for malpractice. In both cases, the court will rule whether auditors can rely on the legal doctrine of in pari delicto (“in equal fault”) to reject claims for fraud allegedly committed by company insiders. The doctrine prevents someone from recovering damages from a defendant if that someone is also at fault. The argument is whether the shareholders, as owners of the company, can be held at fault for frauds committed within the company and barred from suing its auditors for not discovering the wrongdoing.

The first lawsuit facing scrutiny was filed by the shareholders of AIG against PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC), the insurer’s auditor. The shareholders claim that PwC failed in its job as auditors in the early 2000s, when various AIG officers and directors, including ex-CEO Maurice Greenberg, allegedly engaged in fraudulent transactions to pad AIG’s bottom line. Authorities subsequently caught the fraud, and AIG had to restate years of financial statements that “eventually reduced stockholder equity by $3.5 billion.” AIG ended up paying more than $1.5 billion in fines, and the shareholders say that since PwC missed the fraud, they should be allowed to sue PwC for malpractice. The Chancery Court in Delaware dismissed their request to sue PwC, and the case was appealed in Delaware’s Supreme Court. That court asked the New York’s Court of Appeals to decide whether the shareholders have a claim under New York law.

The second case relates to protracted litigation by the bankruptcy trustee of Refco Inc., the failed futures broker, seeking damages from a number of the firm’s professional advisers, and auditors including Grant Thornton, KPMG LLP, Ernst & Young LLP, PricewaterhouseCoopers LLP, Mayer Brown, LLP, et al. The trustee alleges that Refco’s outside counsel Mayer Brown, and several other insiders are liable for defrauding Refco’s creditors by helping the defunct company conceal hundreds of millions of dollars in uncollectible debt. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit found that the trustee’s argument to revive claims against the corporate insiders raised unresolved questions concerning his standing under New York law to sue third-parties for Refco’s fraud.