BAILOUT FOR AN IMPROPERLY DRAFTED INDEMNIFICATION PROVISION

shutterstock_1060051475A recent opinion came out that held that even though an indemnification provision in a subcontract was unenforceable per Florida Statute s. 725.06, the unenforceable portion is merely severed out of the indemnification clause leaving the rest of the clause intact.  In essence, an otherwise invalid indemnification clause is bailed out by this ruling (which does not even discuss whether this subcontract had a severability provision that states that if any portion of any provision in the subcontract is invalid, such invalid portion shall be severed and the remaining portion of the provision shall remain in full force and effect). 

 

This opinion arose from a construction defect case, CB Contractxors, LLC v. Allens Steel Products, Inc.,43 Fla.L.Weekly D2773a (Fla. 5thDCA 2018), where the general contractor, sued by an association, flowed down damages to subcontractors based on the contractual indemnification provision in the subcontracts.  Subcontractors moved to dismiss the contractual indemnification claim because it was not compliant with Florida Statute s. 725.06.  The indemnification provision required the subcontractors to indemnify the general contractor even for the general contractors own partial negligence, but failed to specify a monetary limitation on the extent of the indemnification as required by Florida Statute s. 725.06.  (The indemnification clause in the subcontract was the standard intermediate form of indemnification that required the subcontractor to indemnify the general contractor for claims regardless of whether the claims were caused in part by the general contractor.) 

 

The trial court held that because the indemnification clause was unenforceable under Florida Statute s. 725.06, the general contractor’s contractual indemnification claims fail.   But, the appellate court reversed providing a bailout to an unenforceable indemnification clause by simply severing out the unenforceable portion. Thus, while a subcontractor would be required to indemnify the general contractor for its own negligence, it would not be required to indemnify the general contractor for any partial negligence caused by the general contractor.  

 

This case leads to a couple of very important takeaways:

 

  • Make sure the indemnification clauses in your construction contracts comply with Florida Statute s. 725.06.  Have a construction attorney review the indemnification provision.  Do not, and I mean, do not, bank on this ruling that even if the indemnification provision is noncompliant, only the unenforceable part will be severed.  That is not good practice.

 

  • Include a severability provision in your contract. Always.  Even though this case did not discuss such a clause, the clause will bolster the argument that only the unenforceable aspect of the provision should be severed. 

 

Please contact David Adelstein at dadelstein@gmail.com or (954) 361-4720 if you have questions or would like more information regarding this article. You can follow David Adelstein on Twitter @DavidAdelstein1.

INDEMNIFICATION PROVISIONS DO NOT CREATE RECIPROCAL ATTORNEY’S FEES PROVISIONS

shutterstock_121868692In a good, recent decision, the Eleventh Circuit in International Fidelity Insurance Co. v. Americabe-Moriarity, JV, 2018 WL 5306683 (11th Cir. 2018), held that Florida Statute s. 57.105(7) cannot be used to shift attorney’s fees in a contractual indemnification clause in a dispute between a general contractor and subcontractor’s performance bond surety, when the dispute does not involve an actual indemnification claim stemming from a third-party.

 

In this case, a prime contractor terminated a subcontractor and looked to the subcontractor’s performance bond surety to pay for the completion work.  The subcontractor had a standard AIA A312 performance bond that requires the prime contractor to comply with the terms of the bond, as well as the incorporated subcontract, in order to trigger the surety’s obligations under the bond.  The surety filed an action for declaratory relief against the prime contractor arguing that the prime contractor breached the terms of the performance bond through non-compliance thereby discharging the surety’s obligations.  The trial court agreed and the surety moved for attorney’s fees. 

 

The surety’s argument for attorney’s fees was threefold: (1) the indemnification provision requiring the subcontractor to indemnify the prime contractor required the subcontractor to indemnify the prime contractor for, among other things, attorney’s fees; (2) Florida Statute s. 57.105(7) provides that one-sided contractual attorney’s fees provisions must apply to both parties (and treated reciprocally), hence the inclusion of attorney’s fees in the indemnification provision means that the surety should be entitled to attorney’s fees; and (3) since the subcontract was incorporated into the performance bond, the surety should be entitled to attorney’s fees since it steps in the shoes of the subcontractor under principles of surety law.

 

Surprisingly, the trial court agreed with the surety.  However, thankfully, the Eleventh Circuit held that the indemnity provision in the subcontract was an indemnity clause that applies only to third-party claims and not suits between the general contractor and subcontractor.  Thus, the requirement of reciprocity for attorney’s fees provisions pursuant to Florida Statute s. 57.105 does not apply.  The Eleventh Circuit, however, did not enter a ruling as to whether even if s. 57.105 did apply such that attorney’s fees must be reciprocal in an indemnification clause, whether such rationale would allow the performance bond surety to recover attorney’s fees under principles of surety law. 

 

This decision is useful for a few reasons:

 

(1)  If a contractor, subcontractor, etc. is trying to create an argument for attorney’s fees based on an indemnification clause, this decision is helpful to put that issue to bed since the indemnification provision applies in the context of third-party claims, and is not related to independent claims between the contracting parties;

(2) A party looking to take advantage of a performance bond must, and I mean, must, make sure to properly comply with the terms of the bond.  Certain sureties will raise any argument to avoid obligations under a performance bond hoping that the beneficiary of the bond undertakes an act that allows the surety to discharge its obligations; and

(3) General (prime) contractors should explore subcontractor default insurance, which is a first-party insurance policy, as an alternative to performance bonds to avoid the issues associated with delays and other arguments a surety may raise in furtherance of avoiding obligations under the bond.

 

 

Please contact David Adelstein at dadelstein@gmail.com or (954) 361-4720 if you have questions or would like more information regarding this article. You can follow David Adelstein on Twitter @DavidAdelstein1.

 

UPDATE: DOES FLORIDA STATUTE s. 725.06 APPLY TO (HORIZONTAL) UTILITY CONTRACTS?

shutterstock_486800107In a prior article, I discussed a recent case that held that Florida Statute s. 725.06–the statute that governs indemnification provisions where the indemnitor is required to indemnify the indemnitee for personal injury or property damage caused wholly or partially by the indemnitee–does not apply to a horizontal, utility project as it only applies to the “construction, alteration, repair, or demolition of a building, structure, appurtenance, or appliance” per the wording of the statute.  (Please refer to the article regarding the facts of the case.)  From a logic standpoint, the case did not make a whole lot of sense as there would be restrictions on indemnification provisions for vertical projects but not a horizontal project such as underground utility improvements.  The reason this was an important issue in the case is because if s. 725.06 did govern the indemnification provision, it was not in compliance with the requirements of the statute.  If it was not in compliance, then it was not an enforceable indemnification provision.  The enforceability of an indemnification provision is a BIG deal!

 

Recently, the Fourth District substituted a new opinion, Block Builders, LLC v. Katryniok, 2018 WL 194095 (Fla. 4th DCA 2018), although I cannot say it is that helpful.  The appellate court still maintained that Florida Statute s. 725.06 did not apply to the contract at-issue since the contract involved underground utility improvements and the wording of s. 725.06 only applied to the “construction, alteration, repair, or demolition of a building, structure, appurtenance, or appliance.”  However, in this substituted opinion, the appellate court held that while s. 725.06 did not apply to the contract at-issue, this does not mean it can never apply to a utility contract.  Whatever that specifically means is unknown.     

 

Indemnification is a very importation provision in any construction contract. Very important.   It is a provision that should never be overlooked and it should be drafted with an eye towards the requirements of s. 725.06.  Parties need to understand the application of the indemnification provision, particularly in light of the liability insurance they maintain for purposes of the project.  Irrespective of this appellate court’s opinion, parties really should make sure their indemnification provision complies with s. 725.06.  Banking on the hopeful position that s. 725.06 does not govern their construction contract seems overly optimistic and quite unnecessary since a ruling that the provision is unenforceable can be damaging.  

 

Please contact David Adelstein at dadelstein@gmail.com or (954) 361-4720 if you have questions or would like more information regarding this article. You can follow David Adelstein on Twitter @DavidAdelstein1.

THERE ARE TIMES AN EQUITABLE SUBROGATION CLAIM IS THE MOST PRACTICAL RECOURSE FOR REIMBURSEMENT

shutterstock_627721505Equitable subrogation is a claim that can be pursued when a party (referred to as the subrogee) pays for damages to protect its interest–perhaps to mitigate its own exposure–seeks reimbursement from another party primarily liable for the damages.  There are times a party seeking reimbursement for purely economic losses is best able to pursue an equitable subrogation claim, as opposed to a common law indemnification or negligence claim.

 

Equitable subrogation is generally appropriate where: (1) the subrogee made the payment to protect [its] own interest, (2) the subrogee did not act as a volunteer, (3) the subrogee was not primarily liable for the debt, (4) the subrogee paid off the entire debt, and (5) subrogation would not work any injustice to the rights of a third party.

Tank Tech, Inc. v. Valley Tank Testing, L.L.C., 43 Fla.L.Weekly D868a (Fla. 2d DCA 2018) quoting Dade Cty. Sch. Bd. v. Radio Station WQBA, 731 So.2d 638, 646 (Fla. 1999).

 

Equitable subrogation is not dependent on a contract—it is simply an “equitable remedy for restitution to one [the subrogee] who in the performance of some duty has discharged a legal obligation which should have been met, either wholly or partially, by another.”  Tank Tech, Inc., supra, quoting W. Am. Ins. Co. v. Yellow Cab Co. of Orlando, Inc., 495 So.2d 204, 206 (Fla. 5th DCA 1986).

 

As shown in the recent decision below, there are times an equitable subrogation claim will generate more traction for purposes of a reimbursement claim than a negligence claim or common law indemnification claim, because an equitable subrogation claim does not require the party seeking reimbursement to show a duty is owed to it by the party it is seeking reimbursement from.

  

The recent decision of Tank Tech, Inc. involved damage to underground petroleum storage tanks at Circle K locations.  Company “A,” the subrogee, had been hired by Circle K to retrofit existing tanks by adding an interior wall inside of the tanks.  Company “B” was separately hired by Circle K to test the interstitial space between the new interior wall installed by Company “A” and the existing tank wall.  There was no contractual relationship between Company “A” and Company “B.”

 

After the tanks were retrofitted, Circle K notified Company “A” that the modified tanks were damaged and failing.  Although Company’s “A” investigation revealed the failure was the result of Company’s “B’s” testing methodology, Company “A” nevertheless repaired the damage to the tanks because its contract with Circle K required it to do so regardless of whether the damage was caused by a third party, such as Company “B.”

 

Company “A” then sued Company “B” for reimbursement of its repair costs under various claims, one of which was equitable subrogation.  Each party had expert opinions that pointed to the other for the cause of the tanks’ failure and damage.  The trial court granted a motion for summary judgment in favor of Company “B” finding that equitable subrogation did not apply.  This summary judgment was reversed on appeal as the Second District maintained that there were factual issues supporting the basis of the equitable subrogation claim:

 

Tank Tech’s [Company “A”] contract with Circle K obligated it to repair damages to the USTs [tanks]. But Tank Tech’s contractual obligation to Circle K did not convert Tank Tech into a “volunteer” to pay for damages caused by a third party and thus did not prevent the application of the equitable subrogation doctrine. Instead, Tank Tech was merely fulfilling its legal obligation to Circle K which was a necessary means of protecting itself from liability to Circle K. And Tank Tech, by virtue of Dr. Cignatta’s affidavit [expert opinion establishing Company “B” caused failure to tanks], established a genuine issue of material fact regarding whether Tank Tech or Valley Tank [Company “B”] was primarily liable for the damages. If Tank Tech is ultimately successful in proving that Valley Tank caused the damage to the USTs, then it would be entitled to seek any damages it incurred as a result of having to repair the damaged USTs.  To hold that Tank Tech is precluded from pursuing a claim for subrogation would leave Tank Tech without a remedy, a “most unfair and inequitable result.” 

Tank Tech, Inc., supra (internal citations omitted).

 

Negligence and Common Law Indemnification

 

Relatedly, Company “A” also sued Company “B” for negligence and common law indemnification for repairing tanks it claimed were caused by Company “B’s” testing methodology.  The trial court also granted summary judgment in favor of Company “B” on these claims.  Unlike the equitable subrogation claim, the Second District affirmed the summary judgment in favor of Company “B” on these claims. 

 

For Company “A” to sustain a negligence claim, it would have to establish that Company “B” owed it a duty.  Without a duty owed, there is no negligence claim.  Whether there is a duty is a question of law for the court.   In this case, when dealing with only economic losses, the relationship between the parties—Company “A” and Company “B”—needs to be examined to determine whether a special relationship exists to warrant creating a duty to protect the economic interests of another.  “[I]n order to proceed on a common law negligence claim based solely on economic loss, there must be some sort of link between the parties or some other extraordinary circumstance that justifies recognition of such a claim.”  Tank Tech, Inc., supra.   Here, the Second District agreed that Company “B” did not owe Company “A” a duty to support a negligence claim:

 

The reason why the negligence claim fails here is because there is neither a special relationship between Valley Tank [Company “B”] and Tank Tech [Company “A”] nor any extraordinary circumstance that would require imposition of a duty. Tank Tech’s injury did not flow from Valley Tank’s testing of the USTs [tanks]. Instead, Tank Tech seeks to recover the money it spent in repairing the USTs, an expense that was the result of a negotiated contract between Tank Tech and Circle K. There was no contract between Valley Tank and Tank Tech obligating Valley Tank to repair any USTs it damaged during testing or otherwise obligating Valley Tank to repay Tank Tech for the expenses incurred pursuant to Tank Tech’s contract with Circle K. And Valley Tank’s testing did not cause any personal injury or property damage to Tank Tech, the types of injuries for which the common law of negligence has historically permitted recovery.

***

This is simply a case of a party attempting to bring a tort claim to recover monies that it spent as a result of a contractual obligation to a third party. But negligence claims cannot proceed based on a party’s desire to relieve itself from a bad bargain.

Tank Tech, Inc., supra.

 

 

Likewise, regarding the common law indemnification claim, “actions for indemnity have been restricted to situations involving either a duty, an express contract, or the existence of active and passive negligence.”  Tank Tech, Inc., supra, quoting Hiller Grp., Inc. v. Redwing Carriers, Inc., 779 So.2d 602, 603 (Fla. 2d DCA 2001).  Since the Second District already agreed there was no special relationship between Company “A” and Company “B” and, thus, no duty owed, the common law indemnification claim failed for the same reasons as the negligence claim.

 

Please contact David Adelstein at dadelstein@gmail.com or (954) 361-4720 if you have questions or would like more information regarding this article. You can follow David Adelstein on Twitter @DavidAdelstein1.