What Does the Indemnification Clause in My Contract Mean?

What Does the Indemnification Clause in My Contract Mean?

Indemnification provisions provide an important tool to parties seeking to allocate the risk of third-party damages and liabilities when contracting. When reviewing a contract, most people understandably first consider things like deadlines, pricing information, and the description of the assets to be transferred or the services to be performed. While these things are of course important, a well drafted contract can do much more. Frequently overlooked as “boiler plate” language, the exact structure and wording of an indemnification clause can become vitally important to protect your interests and limit the impact of creditor claims for actions you had little control over or means to prevent. These clauses should be fully understood and carefully considered before signing an agreement. Some contracts may not use the word “indemnification,” rather phrases like “hold harmless” or agreements to “defend” the other party and are a red flag that something like an indemnification clause may be at play. For such reasons you should always look beyond the heading of a section when interpreting the text at issue.

The assignment of responsibilities for liabilities is often a large part of agreements for commercial transactions. While the parties to a contract have broad discretion to transfer property, obligations and liability between themselves, they are limited in their ability to dictate that third parties – who have not joined into the contract – respect the terms of an agreement they had no say in. This conforms to the broader legal principle that “no one gives what they do not have.” For the same reason you cannot contract to sell something that belongs to another without their consent, you cannot contract to limit the rights of others to make claims they are otherwise entitled to make. Because the allocation of liability for certain causes of action is such an important part of many contractual matters, parties sometimes instead use indemnification provisions to essentially refund, or “indemnify,” the other party if they suffer damages resulting from certain types of issues.

To illustrate this principle, consider the following situation. A business owner rents a storefront from a landlord and agrees in the lease that they can only sue the landlord under certain circumstances. The business owner accepts certain risks or faults with the property they are renting.  For this example, assume the landlord discloses the radiator is not up to code and could cause a burn, so the tenant will take on the responsibility to get it fixed and agrees not to sue the landlord if they get burned by it before it is fixed. On its face, this arrangement seems a valid contractual exchange – the landlord gives up the right to use the property for a set time in exchange for: (1) rent and (2) the tenant’s agreement to limit suit against them from injuries over certain disclosed problems and (3) the agreement by tenant to fix the radiator.

In contrast, the landlord cannot effectively include a provision saying that “none of your customers can sue me if they are injured on the property, because you are responsible for keeping it in good and safe condition.” Despite the landlord shifting responsibility to keep the property in good condition to the tenant, they cannot prohibit third parties from making claims against the landlord if they are injured on the property. If the business owner fails to have the radiator replaced and a customer burns themselves while shopping, the burned customer would be fully within their rights to sue the landlord, despite the landlord’s arrangement with the tenant to fix the issue.

To better protect themselves, the landlord should have included an indemnification provision. Since the parties cannot limit who third parties claim damages from, they instead say “If I am forced to pay a certain type of claim, you agree to pay me back.” Here, the lease could apply indemnification to liabilities arising from the tenant’s negligent maintenance or actions with respect to the rented space, perhaps with specific reference to damages from the radiator if they fail to replace it. If the injured customer sues the landlord, the landlord would pay the claim and then seek to enforce the indemnification provision to recover the costs from their tenant who had agreed to indemnify them under these circumstances.

Far from being the “standard provision” they are often dismissed for, indemnification provisions can vary widely in scope, application and duration. Depending on the bargaining power of the parties, all such points may be negotiated.

The scope of an indemnity governs what circumstances are covered under it. A common scope provision might provide damages fall under the indemnity if they are a result of a breach of the agreement, inaccuracy of any representations or warranties made by the indemnifying party. Before agreeing to indemnify another party, consider what type of actions would fall under the described scope, whether any ambiguities exist regarding the scope of coverage and whether you have any control over preventing or reducing the risk of those types of claims. Ideally, you should not be agreeing to indemnify a party for liability resulting from the actions, errors, or omissions of their own or of a third party you have no control over. Wisconsin law permits broad indemnification clauses, but Wisconsin courts tend to strictly construe them, meaning they will not generally stretch the interpretation of the clause to bring an ambiguous situation under the indemnity. Wisconsin also has special rules for the scope of indemnification in construction contracts.

The application of an indemnity relates to how an indemnity will mechanically be triggered, calculated, and resolved. This includes important provisions on the required notices and timelines associated with various aspects of the indemnification procedure. A party seeking to rely on the clause should carefully comply with these technical requirements as the party obligated to pay under it will likely be looking for ways to get out of it if it is triggered. The provision may also place limits on the amounts required to be paid under the clause, or require certain steps are taken to ensure damages are mitigated or funds are available to comply with the indemnification requirements. The parties may require each other to carry insurance policies designed to cover these costs during the term of the indemnity to ensure it is effective. This is important because an indemnification right against a party with no collectible assets does not offer much protection. In the example used earlier of the landlord and tenant, the landlord’s indemnity will not be useful if the tenant has no assets from which to recover or if all of the assets are separated from the limited liability entity which granted the indemnity and thus very difficult to reach.

The duration of the indemnity governs how long the agreement to provide indemnity lasts. Contracts for purchase and sale transactions often have the bulk of the agreement terms end following the transfer of goods and payment, but indemnification provisions are often among the terms separated out and assigned a longer period of “survival.” These terms usually are tied to the statute of limitations for the claims they are being applied against but may still vary.

If you have questions on how an indemnification clause in a contract you are considering will operate, you should speak to a business law attorney to help you review, understand and potentially negotiate alterations to the agreement.

 

Completing LLC Organization Through Agreements

Completing LLC Organization Through Agreements

You have made the decision to start your own small business. That is great news! But what steps should you take now to properly organize your limited liability company?

In Wisconsin, the first step of limited liability company formation is to decide on a name and file Articles of Organization with the Wisconsin Department of Financial Institutions. The articles establish your business with the State of Wisconsin and specify whether your business is managed by members or managers, who will serve as your registered agent, and the principal location of your business.

Many individuals file articles online, but do not complete the other steps to best protect their business and to take full advantage of the limited liability protection provided for by a limited liability company.

The next step is to develop and execute an Operating Agreement for your limited liability company. An Operating Agreement guides how your new business will function. You will draft your Operating Agreement to determine voting rights and duties of members, management terms of members or managers, member ownership interest, and meeting requirements. The Operating Agreement, when fully executed, protects the members from personal liability for actions of the limited liability company. This point is important because without the executed Operating Agreement, the members will likely be subject to personal liability as they would be if they operated with a sole proprietorship or partnership. Resolutions by the organizers, members, and/or managers adopting the Operating Agreement and member lists should be executed at the same time.

The final step to develop your new limited liability company is to determine whether to draft a Buy-Sell Agreement. This agreement is very important to limit conflict when a limited liability company has multiple owners. The terms of this agreement determine the process for transferring business ownership and anticipates various scenarios which will likely lead to conflict. Such scenarios include the determination of the fair market value of the business and a selling member’s interest, what happens to the shares of a member in the event of death or divorce, how shares are transferred when a member retires, and who has the option to purchase ownership in the limited liability company.

The business attorneys at Anderson O’Brien are happy to provide you with personalized guidance on the topics covered in this post, as well as decisions regarding the nuances of the tax elections, management decisions, proper record-keeping, and other steps to formalize your new limited liability company.

 

TIF – A Development Tool for New and Expanding Businesses

TIF – A Development Tool for New and Expanding Businesses

My litigation practice has taken me into many areas of law in my career, including handling matters for both municipal and business clients that involve tax incremental financing (TIF.) Despite these turbulent economic times, new and existing businesses as well as municipalities are still searching for ways to move forward. TIF may be one very useful tool for a successful public-private partnership.

TIF is a mechanism for financing development from taxes that are generated from a tax incremental district (TID.)  TIDs, governed by state law, have been in existence for decades. In simple terms, a TID is a geographic area that is created to advance development within the district for a limited time. The tax revenue generated on property within the TID at the time of creation will continue to be shared with overlying tax entities. However, tax revenue generated from new development within the TID will be retained entirely by the TID to finance further development during its life.

Financing can come in many forms. Cash grants to new and expanding businesses to incentivize development may be one such form. Pay-as-you-go incentives, which involve developers retaining tax revenue generated by their own specific development, may be another form. Hybrid arrangements of these two financing tools are another potential.

For new businesses especially, TIF can serve as added security for a lender. Moreover, TIF may often work in combination with private financing, other state incentives and gap financing to make a new business venture a reality and a win-win for business and local taxpayers in the long run.

However, a win-win situation starts with understanding the options available, the typical municipal processes to go through and ultimately structuring a strong development agreement.  Poorly drafted development agreements can lead to litigation from both sides.  Securing TIF advice from municipal counsel early in the process can pay dividends and avoid problems on either side down the line.

 

The First Ruling on Issue Finds No Insurance Coverage for Business Interruption Due to COVID-19

The First Ruling on Issue Finds No Insurance Coverage for Business Interruption Due to COVID-19

This article is a follow-up to my article of May 4, 2020, which addressed litigation and claims involving business losses as a result of COVID-19. Hundreds of lawsuits have been filed throughout the country by business owners who have been forced to close their doors or restrict their operations due to mandated governmental orders and closures due to the spread of the COVID-19 virus.

On July 2, 2020, the first court to make a substantive ruling on these insurance coverage issues held in favor of the insurance company and denied coverage under the business owner’s insurance policy under the “business interruption” coverage provision. In Gavrilides Management Company, et al. v. Michigan Insurance Company, the owner of the Soup Spoon Café and The Bistro in Lansing, Michigan filed a $650,000.00 claim with its insurance company for damages it incurred as a result of the government mandated closure of the inside dining in its restaurants due to COVID-19.

The restaurant owner argued that the government order restricted the operations of the restaurant and this amounted to a “direct physical loss” under the terms of the policy because the order blocked public entry to the property. The restaurant owner also argued that the “virus exclusion” in the policy did not apply because the loss of access was caused by the government order, not the virus. The Michigan court rejected both arguments and held that there has to be something that physically alters the integrity of the property and there has to be some tangible, physical damage to the property in order for it to be a “direct physical loss” which could provide coverage. The court further held that the virus exclusion in the policy excluded coverage caused by the impact of COVID-19.

While this case is not binding precedent on Wisconsin courts, because it is the first court to address the substantive provisions of business interruption insurance coverage in light of the COVID-19 virus, this case will likely be cited by insurance companies in all of the other pending cases throughout the country. Only time will tell if other jurisdictions will follow the reasoning of the Michigan court, or if it will take an alternative approach. It should be noted that each insurance policy must be evaluated based upon its particular language that is in effect, as well as the particular facts of the business owner’s circumstances. Therefore, simply because one court ruled in favor of the insurance company does not mean that this will be the same result in every other claim brought by a business owner who suffered losses as a result of the mandated government closures during the COVID-19 pandemic.

 

Is My Contract Enforceable During an Emergency?

Is My Contract Enforceable During an Emergency?

As a result of forced closures and disruptions to supply chains connected with the Covid-19 pandemic, many businesses are facing the reality that they will not be able to complete obligations agreed to in contracts entered into prior to the crisis. This has brought new attention to an often-overlooked portion of contract law: force majeure clauses.

Sometimes referred to as “Act of God” clauses, force majeure provisions lay out the rules for how contract obligations will be affected if defined events outside of the parties’ control hinder their ability to comply with the contract. Typically, when a party fails to comply with the terms of a contract, they are in “breach,” and the non-breaching party may sue them for the damages caused by the breach or other damages laid out in the contract itself. Force majeure literally translates to “superior force” and fittingly is intended to protect a party who cannot complete the terms of the contract because of intervening forces outside of their control. To be effective for this purpose, the clause must be (1) enforceable, (2) successfully triggered, and (3) provide an adequate remedy or alternative.

States vary in the enforceability requirements for force majeure clauses. Some states require certain formalities to be made and vary in how they interpret terms like “unforeseeable.” It is important to make sure you understand how your state interprets any contracts you enter into and which state law will be used when settling disputes related to the contract. Another aspect of enforceability is whether the procedure for using the provision was properly followed. Some contracts require notices be delivered of the intent to rely on the force majeure clause. Failing to follow the procedure outlined in the contract may result in forfeiting the benefits of the force majeure clause.

To trigger the protections afforded by force majeure provisions, an event described in the clause must occur. Courts tend to use strict contractual analysis when interpreting the clauses, meaning that the exact phrasing in the contract will usually control and courts will be reluctant to read in provisions not explicitly included in the text. Common trigger events include natural disasters like floods, hurricanes and earthquakes, acts of terrorism, war, riots, and publicly declared states of emergency. When the term “Act of God” is used, the commonly accepted definition is any event which may be attributed entirely to nature without human interference. Economic hardship or shifts in the markets are unlikely to trigger a force majeure clause, as these risks are present in every contract and courts typically assume the parties have factored them in when entering into the agreement.

Many of these clauses are already written to expressly include epidemics and pandemics. Even without explicit reference to epidemics or pandemics, it is possible such events may fall under references. For example, a force majeure clause including terms for governmental action or restrictions may allow the clause to trigger not because of the pandemic itself, but because of state and federal actions taken to combat it. It is likely that in years to come, more clauses will be written to explicitly include these triggers to avoid any room for doubt over whether they qualify.

When successfully triggered, a force majeure clause usually will allow for the obligations of the contract to be terminated outright, altered in some way, or delayed. These remedies need to be considered carefully when drafting the clause to ensure the protection provided is a good fit for the subject matter and facts related to the contract. For example, a clause allowing either party to unilaterally terminate the contract when triggered may not be in your best interest if the transaction in the contract is beneficial to you, but you just need more time to complete it. What happens to money paid in advance and how partial performance will be treated are also things to consider when drafting the remedy section of the clause.

In the absence of an enforceable force majeure clause, there may be other options which allow a breaching party to escape liability for breaking the contract. The common law doctrines of impossibility and frustration of purpose may also provide relief from a contract’s terms in times of unforeseen emergency. While beyond the scope of this article, in short, these defenses to a breach of contract cover situations where an unforeseen event, not reasonably anticipated by the parties, either makes compliance impossible, or results in the original purpose of the contract to be so undermined that the actual objective sought to be gained by the contract actions is no longer possible. Even with the potential availability of these common law doctrines, it is preferable to rely on clear contractual language rather than asserting common law defenses.

If you have questions about how the force majeure clause in your contract will be applied, you should speak with an attorney. You may also want to review your insurance policies for provisions limiting their liability for damages caused by such force majeure events. These limitations are common but may deny you coverage at the time you need it the most. Current events may also serve as a prompt for you to be proactive in preparing for whatever the next disaster may be. If your company contracts do not already contain a force majeure clause, or if you believe it is time the existing language be reviewed with greater attention, an attorney will be able to help your business be better prepared to weather future disruptions.

 

The First Ruling on Issue Finds No Insurance Coverage for Business Interruption Due to COVID-19

Is Your Business Protected from Business Interruption During the COVID-19 Pandemic?

With the COVID-19 pandemic occurring, many states, including Wisconsin, have ordered all nonessential businesses, including restaurants and bars, to close their doors.  Unfortunately, there will be a substantial amount of revenue lost by these businesses for as long as their businesses are required to remain closed.  A significant question is whether these businesses will have any recourse under any of their business insurance policies to recoup lost revenue based upon the coronavirus and/or whether there is coverage triggered by government-mandated closures.  The answers to these questions require a detailed analysis of each individual insurance policy, as well as the circumstances surrounding the losses of each business.

Coverage for business interruption is typically an endorsement to the insured’s property insurance policy and designed to protect the insured for losses of business income it sustains as a result of the direct loss, damage, or destruction to insured property by a covered peril.  A typical clause in an insurance policy reads as follows (although there are variations to this depending on the insurance company):

“We will pay for the actual loss of business income you sustain due to the necessary suspension of your operations during the period of restoration.  The suspension must be caused by the direct physical loss, damage, or destruction to property.  The loss or damage must be caused by or result from a covered cause of loss.”

Usually, in order to recover under this policy provision, a business owner will need to demonstrate that (1) the business sustained physical damage to the insured property; (2) this damage was caused by a peril covered under the policy; (3) which resulted in quantifiable losses because of the business interruption, and (4) that these losses occurred during the time period needed to restore property that was damaged.

There are presently many lawsuits pending throughout this country in which businesses are attempting to enforce business interruption coverage under business insurance policies and to seek a determination by the courts of whether the coronavirus can be deemed to cause physical damage by infecting surfaces in the business, similar to gaseous fumes which have been found in some cases to constitute a physical loss.

In addition to determining whether the coronavirus may be deemed to be a physical loss under the business interruption policy, each insurance policy must be analyzed to determine whether any language provides coverage for business interruption due to civil authority – such as mandated closures by local, state, or the federal governments.

Each policy’s specific language and endorsements must be individually analyzed.   These provisions must also be evaluated in light of any exclusions in the policy and within the specific context of each business owner’s circumstances. Business owners financially impacted by this unprecedented pandemic should timely consult with an experienced attorney to determine whether or not there may be a valid claim under their insurance policy to pursue significant losses of revenue.  The attorneys at Anderson O’Brien are here to assist you with an insurance coverage analysis or other legal issues that may arise out of any business losses you sustain during these difficult times.

 

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