Equitable subrogation is a doctrine that liability insurers rely on when paying a claim on behalf of an insured. Under this doctrine, the insurer equitably subrogates—steps in the shoes—to the rights of the insured and sues as an equitable subrogee of the insured in order to seek reimbursement for the claim it paid.
What if the liability insurer tried to pursue an equitable subrogation claim against the federal government? In other words, what if the insurer paid out insurance proceeds on behalf of its insured-prime contractor and then tried to recoup the insurance proceeds from the federal government as an equitable subrogee of the prime contractor? The United States Court of Federal Claims in Fidelity and Guaranty Insurance Underwriters v. U.S., 2014 WL 6491835 (Fed.Cl. 2014) explained that a liability insurer CANNOT sue the federal government as an equitable subrogee of the prime contractor in order to recoup insurance proceeds paid out on a claim.
In this case, the government hired a prime contractor to abate asbestos at a post office. The prime contractor was having difficulty obtaining CGL liability insurance to specifically cover asbestos removal for a reasonable premium and the government, through the contracting officer, agreed to execute an addendum to the prime contract that required the government to save harmless and indemnify the contractor from personal injury claims attributable to the asbestos removal work.
More than ten years later, a former government employee sued the prime contractor claiming he contracted cancer from his exposure to asbestos while it was being removed and abated at the project. The prime contractor demanded that the government defend and indemnify it for this claim; however, the government refused. The prime contractor then tendered the claim to its CGL liability insurer and its insurer settled the claim. After the settlement, the prime contractor once again demanded that the government reimburse it by honoring the indemnification language in the addendum; again, the government refused.
The prime contractor’s liability insurer then filed suit against the federal government as the equitable subrogee of the prime contractor in order to recoup the insurance proceeds it paid to the former government employee. The thrust of the claim was that the government breached the indemnification provision. The government moved to dismiss the lawsuit contending that the Court of Federal Claims does not have subject matter jurisdiction to entertain the lawsuit because the liability insurer is not in privity with the government and, therefore, cannot sue the government. The Court of Federal Claims agreed and dismissed the lawsuit. Why? Because a plaintiff suing the federal government on a contract claim must be in privity of contract with the federal government with limited exceptions to this rule:
“The Federal Circuit has recognized limited exceptions to the requirement that parties seeking relief for breach of contract against the government under the Tucker Act must be in privity of contract with the United States. These limited exceptions include (1) actions against the United States by an intended third-party beneficiary; (2) pass-through suits by a subcontractor where the prime contractor is liable to the subcontractor for the subcontractor’s damages; and (3) actions by a Miller Act surety for funds that the government improperly disbursed to a prime contractor [after the surety financed completion of a defaulted subcontractor]. As the court of appeals has observed, the common thread that unites these exceptions is that the party standing outside of privity by contractual obligation stands in the shoes of a party within privity.“
Fidelity and Guaranty Insurance Underwriters, supra(internal quotations and citations omitted).
Since none of the limited exceptions applied to allow a liability insurer to sue the government as an equitable subrogee of its insured-prime contractor, the Court of Federal Claims lacked subject matter jurisdiction.
This ruling does not prevent the prime contractor from suing the government directly for breaching the indemnification provision; it simply prevents the liability insurer from suing as an equitable subrogee of the prime contractor. Even though the insurer paid the claim, perhaps it can enter into an agreement with the prime contractor whereby the prime contractor sues the government directly for breach of contract.
The case demonstrates the limited exceptions available to a claimant on a construction project that wants to pursue a claim directly against the government when the claimant is not the prime contractor hired by the government. While prime contractors can sue the government for breach of contract, subcontractors, in particular, that want to pursue a claim against the government can only do so as a pass-through claim, meaning they are suing in the name of the prime contractor and will require the cooperation of the prime contractor.
Also, as an aside, the indemnification provision from the government and the prime contractor required the government to save harmless and indemnify the prime contractor. I always like to include the word “defend” in an indemnification provision so it is crystal clear that the indemnitor’s indemnification obligations extend to its contractual obligation to defend the indemnitees for any claim.
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