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Would Your Contract Hold Up in Court? Indemnification Clauses and Public Policy.
If you’re in business, you know that contracts are a must to protect yourself. But don’t make the mistake of assuming that simply having a contract is enough. If it’s worded incorrectly, it can cost you.
The same is true with other common clauses in business contracts. Today we’re looking at the indemnification clause, which was the subject in a recent case before the South Carolina Court of Appeals. The Court determined that the clause in question was worded in such a way as to violate state public policy and was therefore unenforceable.
Let’s look at what indemnification is first, then the case, and finally, what you as a business owner can do so you don’t find yourself in the same situation.
What is Indemnification?
In an indemnification clause, the indemnifying party (the indemnifier) agrees to – in standard contract language – “indemnify, hold harmless, and defend” the indemnified party (the indemnitee) against lawsuits and losses resulting from the actions or negligence of the indemnifying party.
In practice, indemnification serves to shift the costs of defending lawsuits and paying resulting damages, if any, from one party (the indemnitee) to the other (the indemnifier). It may also shift the actual defense litigation as well.
For example, say a construction company hires a subcontractor to do some work on a house. The subcontractor indemnifies the construction company against damages arising from lawsuits due to its (the subcontractor’s) work. Let’s say the subcontractor does a shoddy job and the homeowner later sues the construction company for damages. Because it was indemnified, the construction company can expect the subcontractor to cover the fees it spends defending itself and the damages it pays to settle the claim.
A Real-Life Example
This was the general situation in the case at hand, D.R. Horton v. Builders FirstSource v. Jamie Arreguin.
The builder D.R. Horton, Inc. (Horton) entered into a contract with Builders FirstSource (BFS) for BFS to do some construction work on a Daniel Island home. Several years after the work was completed, Horton was sued by Patricia Clark for damages related to multiple alleged construction defects in the home. Horton was ordered to pay Clark $150,000 in general damages after arbitration.
Horton then sought to recover those damages and legal fees from BFS under their contract’s indemnification clause. The case went to a circuit court, which sided with BFS. It then went to the South Carolina Court of Appeals, which affirmed the lower court’s decision.
(For more details about this case, read the PDF of the court’s opinion here.)
What happened? BFS and Horton had an indemnification clause in their contract; why was Horton not able to recover under it?
The Indemnification Clause Violated Public Policy
The main reason the Court decided in BFS’s favor was that the contract’s indemnification clause was written in such a way as to violate South Carolina public policy.
The Court of Appeals found that it was allowable under state statute for Horton and BFS to agree that BFS would indemnify Horton for damages caused by BFS. However, the Court also found that it was not allowable for Horton to have BFS indemnify Horton for damages caused by Horton, which is how the clause was worded. That violated Section 32-2-10 of the South Carolina code and went against public policy, making it illegal and therefore unenforceable.
Here is the relevant section of the Code, abridged for clarity:
Notwithstanding any other provision of law, a promise or agreement in connection with the […] construction […] of a building […] purporting to indemnify the promisee […] against liability for damages […] proximately caused by or resulting from the sole negligence of the promisee […] is against public policy and unenforceable.
In addition, the circuit court and Court of Appeals found that Horton failed to provide BFS written notice of the Clark matter, as per their contract, which acted as a waiver of Horton’s right to indemnification. Also, Horton and Clark requested that the arbitration award be general, which means there was no way to know what part, if any, of the $150,000 award was related to construction work completed by BFS.
What This Means for You
Time and again, businesses get in trouble when they try to get more than they fairly and lawfully deserve. Here, Horton wanted BFS to pay damages for what may have been Horton’s own negligence, which is not reasonably fair, and is also not legal. In the end, Horton got nothing.
As a business owner, here’s what you can do to avoid a similar situation:
- Be very intentional about the wording in the contracts you create. While you want to protect your company’s interests, if you go overboard, you could end up with a clause or contract that’s unenforceable.
- Be just as careful about the contracts you sign. Do you understand what every clause means, and is it fair?
- Work closely with an attorney who understands contract law. Have your attorney draft new contracts or review existing contracts and discuss them with you to ensure they’re worded correctly and align with your business interests.
Get Help with Your Contracts From the Business Attorneys at the Law Office of Gem McDowell
Gem McDowell is a problem solver and a business attorney with over 25 years of experience. He and his associate Lauren Turowetz can help you with your legal needs including reviewing and drafting contracts. Call them at the Law Office of Gem McDowell in Mt. Pleasant, South Carolina to discuss your business matter at (843) 284-1021 today.