Threat of pounds 1bn lawsuit hits payout to Atlantic creditors

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ACCOUNTANTS Ernst & Young are threatening a pounds 1bn lawsuit against Atlantic Computers, scuppering a planned 16p-in-the-pound payout to creditors of the collapsed leasing company.

Ernst & Young, administrator of British & Commonwealth, the financial conglomerate that failed in 1990 after buying Atlantic, has notified Price Waterhouse, administrator of Atlantic, that it may sue for pounds 1bn.

Price Waterhouse now says that 'any payment (to creditors) is unlikely to exceed a few pence'. PW has issued a 'protective' writ against Atlantic's auditor, Spicer and Pegler, now part of Touche Ross. Writs have also been issued against three former Atlantic directors.

These moves are prompted by the legal duties of administrators to pursue all avenues to recoup funds and by their personal liability should assets be disposed of before all large claims are settled. They highlight once again the way in which creditors can lose out to the professionals' fees.

The takeover of Atlantic was the main reason for the downfall of B&C. It paid pounds 400m for Atlantic, based on the 1987 accounts. Subsequently, it emerged that there were unrecognised liabilities as a result of Atlantic's policy of offering clients 'flex' and 'walk' leases, which enabled them to return computers before the leases' full term.

John Soden, PW partner, said the possible Ernst & Young lawsuit would allege that Atlantic had mis-stated its financial position. The sum is probably based on the pounds 400m price with interest.

When PW was first appointed to Atlantic, the prospects of the creditors receiving anything more than a nominal penny in the pound looked slim. But the administrators have recovered about dollars 100m (pounds 65m) of intergroup debt from Atlantic's American subsidiary. This enabled them to draw up the arrangement that was approved by creditors and the courts only a few weeks ago.

PW has already taken out writs against Spicer and Pegler in respect of Atlantic's 1986 and 1987 accounts. The new claim over the 1987 accounts would proceed only if the claim against Atlantic by Ernst & Young were successful.