COMPANY DIRECTORS BALANCE PERKS AND SUITS

COMPANY DIRECTORS BALANCE PERKS AND SUITS

Pity the poor outside company director, but don't pity him too much.

A recent survey shows that an overall average of 42 percent of outside directors of Fortune 1,000 companies - those who are invited from outside the company to sit on the board - have been sued at least once.But these same directors also get trips, prestige and perks, like tickets to Knicks' basketball games. Or, the next directors' winter meeting may be in Hawaii. And some outside directors get the grandest perk of all, use of the company jet. Plus, they get to mingle with the corporate elite.

The most recent poll, conducted by Louis Harris & Associates, New York, for the company that handles all directors' and officers' policies issued by insurance giant Aetna, shows that 70 percent of respondents from major companies felt frivolous and spurious lawsuits were a threat.

Not surprising, really, when 46 percent of outside directors from public companies and 36 percent from private companies actually have been sued.

And this, the poll reveals, is actually an improvement on the findings of its 1992 report, when an average of 49 percent overall had been sued.

It sounds like they're getting walled in on Wall Street.

Outside directors - that is, those who do not actually work for the company, but are invited onto the board - get sued for lots of things. Serving on public companies, they are in danger of being sued by investors for making decisions that lowered the stock price.

Investors like to club together into class actions to do this and it can get expensive.

But clearly this bothers some tender big kahunas. The Harris survey for Executive Risk Management Associates in Simsbury, Conn., found that nine out of 10 outside directors of publicly-held corporations see lack of directors and officers liability cover as a "major barrier" to joining a board of directors.

Indeed, a Coopers & Lybrand survey found that only 18.9 percent of top executives have free professional liability insurance to protect against lawsuits for negligence or errors. The rest, apparently, have to scramble around for the cash to buy their own.

Directors and officers liability is a tricky one for the insurance industry to cover. Richard Youell, a leading Lloyd's of London underwriter said new competitors in the market are running headlong into the costly U.S. legal system, he said.