In what appears to be an issue of first impression, a California district court ruled that various defendants allegedly holding governance tokens to the bZx DAO (or “Decentralized Autonomous Organization”), a protocol for tokenized margin trading and lending, could be deemed to be members of a “general partnership” under California law under the facts outlined in Plaintiffs’ complaint, and thus potentially joint and severally liable for negligence related to a phishing attack that resulted in the loss of users’ cryptocurrency. (Sarcuni v. bZx DAO, No. 22-618 (S.D. Cal. Mar. 27, 2023)). The ruling is significant given that this is purportedly the first court to substantively consider the legal status of a DAO under state law (albeit in a ruling on a motion to dismiss); interestingly, in a prior settlement the defendant bZeroX, LLC and its founders reached with the Commodity Futures Trading Commission (CFTC) in 2022 over claims that bZeroX and its founders unlawfully offered leveraged and margined retail commodity transactions in digital assets, the order expressly considered the bZx DAO (and its successor Ooki DAO, which is co-defendant in the instant action) as an “unincorporated association” under federal law. (In re bZeroX, LLC, CFTC No. 22-31 (Sept. 22, 2022)).
A DAO is a decentralized autonomous organization where token holders can vote on governance decisions of the DAO. DAOs don’t typically operate within a formal corporate structure, opting instead to distribute governance rights among persons who hold a specific governance token. The entire raison d’être of a DAO is to take advantage of web3 technologies and operate without a traditional corporate formation to make decisions without a central authority or usual top-down management structure. While DAOs are emerging as a viable structure in DeFi space, this ruling shows that their non-traditional makeup may not necessarily be a shield from real world liability. Plaintiffs’ theory that the DAO members are part of a general partnership means that anyone holding governance tokens at the relevant time would be jointly and severally liable for the torts of the DAO. To be sure, even though existing structures do not fit the novel web3 organizational primitive that is a DAO, nothing prevented the bZx DAO (or its successor Ooki DAO), from creating a so-called “legal wrapper” or real-world corporate entity to shield individual members from liability and limit potential creditors to monetary recovery from the DAO’s treasury only.