An exculpatory provision in a contract is a provision that relieves one party from liability for damages. It shifts the risk of an issue entirely to the other party. Such a provision is generally drafted by the party preparing the contract that is looking to eliminate or disclaim liability associated with a particular risk, oftentimes a risk within their control. These provisions are also known as limitation of liability provisions because they do exactly that — limit liability as to a risk. For this reason, they can be useful provisions based on the context of certain risks, and are provisions that are included in business contracts (such as construction contracts).
While such clauses are disfavored, they are enforceable if they are drafted clearly, unambiguously, and unequivocally. If they are unclear, ambiguous, or equivocal, they will construed against enforcement. See Obsessions In Time, Inc. v. Jewelry Exchange Venture, LLP, 43 Fla.L.Weekly D1033a (Fla. 3d DCA 2018) (finding exculpatory clause in lease ambiguous and, therefore, unenforceable as to lessor looking to benefit from the exculpatory clause).
Exculpatory clauses are enforceable only where and to the extent that the intention to be relieved from liability is made clear and unequivocal. The wording must be so clear and understandable that an ordinary and knowledgeable person will know what he is contracting away. A phrase in a contract is ambiguous when it is of uncertain meaning, and thus may be fairly understood in more ways than one.
Peterson v. Flare Fittings, Inc., 177 So.3d 651, 654 (Fla. 5th DCA 2015) quoting Tatman v. Space Coast Kennel Club, Inc., 27 So.3d 108, 110 (Fla. 5th DCA 2009).
Because such clauses are disfavored and will be narrowly construed against the party who benefits from the clause, there are certainly public policy considerations that may come into play. See, e.g., Loewe v. Seagate Homes, Inc., 987 So.2d 758 (Fla. 5th DCA 2008) (exculpatory provision in agreement for purchase and construction of new home unenforceable to the extent it relieved homebuilder for an intentional tort and homebuilder could not contract around complying with building code).
When negotiating a contract with an exculpatory provision in a contract, make sure you appreciate the risk associated with the clause. The risk could be significant and outside of your control. Make sure the provision is drafted in a clear, unequivocal. and unambiguous manner. If you are dealing with such a provision after-the-fact, consult with counsel to best analyze arguments pertaining to the enforceability of that provision.
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