Indemnification agreements? What are you signing?

Suddenly, indemnification agreements are flying around the outdoor industry. Make sure you know what you are signing.

Indemnification agreements, either as part of another document or individually are being tossed around the outdoor industry. So far, they have all been written by non-attorneys. By that I mean they are written badly or by someone who does not understand what they are and how they work. Before you sign an indemnification agreement, you need to understand what you are signing and the ramifications of signing it.

An indemnification agreement is similar, not like, but similar, to an insurance policy. Most times an indemnification agreement says you will pay us (indemnify) for any money we spend because of your actions that have cost us money, including our costs and attorney’s fees.

An insurance policy is slightly different than indemnification policy for two reasons.

1.   An insurance policy is very specific on what if covers. If it is not written in the policy as something that is insured, then you will not get money.

2.   You pay for a policy. The amount of money you pay is based on the risk; the greater the risk, the more money you pay for the policy.

Indemnification agreements in the past have been narrow and focused on specific issues that the parties negotiate. The indemnification agreement said if something you did brings us into a lawsuit, you have to reimburse us for our costs if we are sued because of what you did. Indemnification agreements were written into contracts as part of the overall deal.

An Example would be:

A manufacturer makes a product with a defect, and the retailer is sued because of the defect by the consumer who purchased the product. The liability issues are set forth because the agreement says the retailer must be sued or there must be liability or a claim.

First Problem: Consideration

For a contract to be valid there must be consideration. Consideration is a benefit flowing from one party to the other party. Normally, consideration is money. If a contract and a course of dealing exist between two parties, if one party now wants an indemnification agreement signed, there must be new consideration. You have to pay for the new agreement to be a contract and to be binding. No consideration, no contract.

Second Problem: Overly Broad

The indemnification agreements I am seeing recently have been very broad and cover everything. There are major issues with a document this broad because it is impossible to comply with. By that I mean there are realistic limits to what can be indemnified. The major item controlling indemnification agreements is money. If you don’t have a bank account with enough cash in the account to cover the indemnification bill when it comes due, why sign the agreement to begin with?

1.   You can only sign what you can pay for.

Unless you are dealing with broken products (replacement) or fixed amounts (breach of contract), you can only sign an indemnification agreement that has limits that you can afford. If you sign an indemnification agreement knowing there are no way you can pay for it, you are creating additional problems; misrepresentation and fraud (see below). If you can’t pay the bill when it comes due, you will either file bankruptcy and or go out of business.

Make sure you know how much indemnification will cost you and whether or not you can deal with the bill. If you don’t have the cash, then you better have an insurance policy.

2.   You can only sign what your insurance policy says it will cover.

99% of the time, an indemnification agreement is really based on your insurance company stepping up and writing a check. The insurance company does that because:

A.   There is a legitimate claim covered by the policy.

B.   The claim is within the limits of the policy.

C.  The insurance company knew about the indemnification and agreed to it in advance! (Oh?)

If your policy is not broad enough, does not cover everything covered in the indemnification, you are again on the hook yourself. Your commercial policy is very different from your homeowner’s policy. Your commercial policy says it covers everything on the list of covered items in the policy. If the claim is not on the list, you have no insurance coverage.

Your insurance policy is written to pay claims, not necessarily contracts. If the indemnification is not based on a claim or legal liability, your insurance policy may just ignore the issue. The insurance company is not contractually required to pay what is not covered in the policy.

3.   If your insurance company does not know about the indemnification and agree to it, you still may not have coverage. You are back to writing a check.

Your insurance company in many cases can cover indemnification; however, many policies require knowledge in advance or in some cases need to approve indemnification. Sending an indemnification claim to an insurance company based on a contract you signed without the insurance company knowing about the indemnification agreement in advance is an easy way to get the claim denied or the policy non-renewed the next time it comes up for renewal.

4.   Signing an indemnification agreement without the ability to back it up is a misrepresentation in some states.

Misrepresentation pierces the corporate veil making you personally liable for the claims. (The sole exception to this MAYBE if you are an LLC; however several states have not ruled that an LLC can be pierced for misrepresentation and fraud.) Simply put, you sign a contract knowing you cannot complete the contract that is called misrepresentation and maybe fraud. Misrepresentation and fraud on the part of the owner of a corporation, when dealing with monetary issues, is a way to pierce the corporate veil. Piercing the corporate veil is one way of making your personal assets liable for the claims against your business.

This might be a stretch in some cases, but it is clearly within the realm of possibilities, especially if you have a lot of personal assets. Attorneys and insurance companies work harder if they know there is a payoff.

If you can’t fulfill the indemnification agreement, and you have no insurance to cover it, you better not sign it.

5.   You should not indemnify someone for something that you are not liable for.

This is simple. If you don’t owe the money, why would you say you owe the money? Many of these agreements are asking for indemnification for issues that you have no legal liability for. It is hard to be liable for how a product is used if they do not read the instructions. An example would be an employee of a retailer store is demonstrating your product without reading the instructions, attending the tech clinic or understanding the product. During the demonstration to the consumer, he injures the consumer.

Why would that be your fault and why should you pay for it? Yet a few indemnification agreements I’ve read lately would require the manufacture to pay for the injuries.

As a manufacturer you are not legally liable for that claim. It is not your fault; you were not negligent. However, the indemnification agreement you signed said you would pay for any claim based on your product. The consumer has a claim against the retailer, because of the product, but not because the product was defective. The retailer is solely liable for the claim, and you should not be.

A.  You should only indemnify someone for what you are responsible for.

Conversely, you should agree to indemnify someone for what you are liable for. If it is your fault, you should pay. Many indemnification agreements are being written because the cost of getting a manufacturer or liable party to pay up exceeds the amount owed. I understand that reasoning, and it is sound and smart.

A good example of these is: you are running an event on property owned by a third party. You accept the money for the event, set up the course, review the entrants and totally control the event. The landowner’s sole responsibility in the event was providing the land and pointing out any known or reasonably foreseeable dangers on the land.

If someone is hurt in the event and sues the landowner, the event promoter should protect the landowner.

B.  You should not indemnify someone for what you do not have control over.

If the landowner is told by the event promoter that he cannot tell the event promoter how to run the event, the landowner should not be liable. The landowner has no control over the event. Therefore, the landowner should not be liable.

The manufacturer can only be liable for the product. If the sales person working for the retailer tells the consumer that this product will save their lives and prevent all injuries contrary to the manufacturer’s warnings, manual, instructions and marketing, then the manufacturer should not pick up the tab for the injured consumer. The manufacturer had no control over the salesperson, did not even know the salesperson existed, and therefore, should not be liable for someone they have no control over.

A manufacture could be liable if they have not disclaimed the warranty of merchantability or the warranty of fitness for a particular purpose, but that is for another article.

C.  You should only indemnify someone for what your insurance company agrees to indemnify someone for.

That means you should only indemnify someone for:

a.   What you can control.

b.   What you are liable for.

c.   What insurance policy says it will cover?

But they are my friends; they would never sue me based on the agreement!

They might not, but your friend may not always be in control of that agreement. Anyone who becomes a beneficiary or an owner of the contract can use the indemnification to sue you. The two best examples of this are:

A Bankruptcy Trustee: A bankruptcy trustee is an attorney whose job is to find every dime that may be owed to the bankrupt business. Any contract that has not been fulfilled, any invoice that has not been paid, and any indemnification agreement that may have money tied available, will be fair game. If the Bankruptcy Trustee can determine if the business that signed the indemnification agreement owes the bankrupt business money, the Trustee by law, must get the money back.

The Bankruptcy Trustee will sue in the name of the Bankrupt Company claiming indemnification for an earlier claim. You will think you are free and clear because the company you signed the indemnification agreement with filed bankruptcy. However, the Bankruptcy Trustee will come rowing back to the courtroom and hold you liable to the point of forcing you to file bankruptcy.

The Insurance Company under the Subrogation clause of an insurance policy believing the indemnification agreement allows them to collect from you. Every insurance policy has a subrogation clause. That means that the insurance company has the right to recover from anyone who caused the claim that the insurance company wrote a check for. Insurance companies will spend days looking for anyone who they can recover money from, and an indemnification agreement is a perfect opportunity. I would guess that 30% or more of the lawsuits in the US are insurance company subrogation claims.

Subrogation claims can be filed by worker’s comp accidents, car accidents, general liability or health insurance claims.

Again, the lawsuit will be in the name of the company you signed the indemnification agreement with, and that company has no choice. If the company does not cooperate with the insurance company, the original claim may not get paid. Insurance companies will finance the lawsuit, so there are no legal games to be played; they know what they want, and they understand the cost of getting it.

If you want Indemnification Agreements…. And you should then get them in a way that works for everyone.

Spending time money legal fees on an agreement that won’t be used or cannot be collected on is a waste of time.

1.   Be realistic.

a.   With you asking to indemnify for what

b.   What they can pay or what insurance they can purchase and afford.

c.   With what you need indemnified, with what someone other than you is legally liable for.

2.   Be prepared to offer one in return. Why should I sign yours if you are going to leave me out in the cold for any claim or liability you cause? Besides mutual indemnification, agreements take out the consideration issue if written correctly.

3.   Make sure it is signed by the right person. A corporation has officers. The board of directors of the corporation authorizes the officers to sign agreements for the corporation. An indemnification agreement is a big deal so make sure the person signing it has the authority to sign the agreement. Having a sales person or sales manager sign the agreement is a waste of trees.

4.   An indemnification agreement without a Certificate of Insurance or an Additional Insured document that is tied to the Indemnification Agreement, not just with it, is worthless.

The certificate of insurance must be legally tied to the indemnification agreement or both are worthless. There is no insurance to cover the indemnification and not money to indemnify the problem.

5.   Have an attorney write your indemnification agreement so it works.

One last point

Signing indemnification agreements may increase your insurance rates. Basically, instead of insuring you, your policy is not insuring dozens of other businesses and their employees. Your insurance company, if they continue to renew your policy, may increase your premium because the risk has increased.

(Insurance companies also do this based on the number of Additional Insured’s you issue and the coverage you make available to the Additional insured’s. Again, that is another article for another day.)

Indemnification agreements work, but only if written correctly and written with knowledge of how and why they work.

What do you think? Leave a comment.

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By Recreation Law   James H. Moss                  Jim Moss

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