California Business and Professions code section 7159 comprises eight pages of small type covering home improvement contracts, which makes it difficult for contractors to always follow the letter of the law.

“There are so many very technical requirements in 7159, including type size and placement of various provisions within the contract document, that even a conscientious contractor might miss them,” says Kevin P. Cody, a partner at Ropers Majeski Kohn & Bentley PC.

Smart Business spoke with Cody about construction contracts and how companies can avoid problems that void agreements.

When do contract problems arise?

Obviously, if construction goes well, the contract typically isn’t brought up. But when there is a problem, the homeowner or his or her attorney will search the contract for defenses. For example, the entire contract can be voidable or unenforceable if the contractor hasn’t complied with all of the requirements of section 7159, which are numerous and pretty detailed.

California law gives particular protection for home renovation projects because it’s frequently a one-on-one relationship between an inexperienced homeowner and a contractor. Prior to enactment of 7159, a homeowner might find himself or herself in a position where substantial upfront payments had been made, the contractor would only be partway through with work, and all of a sudden the homeowner couldn’t find the contractor. In a commercial setting, where you’re dealing with people who are quite sophisticated and savvy, they do not require the same degree of protection.

However, strict compliance with 7159 will not always work as a defense for the homeowner. A landscape designer/contractor client didn’t strictly comply with all code provisions, and a homeowner, because he was dissatisfied with a few things, hired an attorney and decided not to pay. The homeowner filed a lawsuit, claiming the contractor’s failure to strictly comply with 7159 justified nonpayment. In spite of the landscape designer/contractor’s failure to strictly comply, the court sided with the designer/contractor and awarded it all of the money the homeowner had withheld.

How detailed are the code provisions?

A window company wanted contracts prepared for installations it was going to be doing. On the first page of the contract, you have to mention the date the buyer signed, there has to be a notice of cancellation and a heading that says ‘home improvement’ in at least 10-point, bold face type — that comes straight from the statute. There are a lot of other very detailed requirements.

What should you do to draft contracts that are compliant?

Most contractors already have contracts that comply in certain areas, but in many instances they haven’t updated them. An attorney can go through and make recommendations. In addition to compliance with the technical requirements of 7159, there are other statutes with provisions that the contractor may not appreciate fully, e.g., those dealing with attorney’s fees, or with provisions that have changed in the last few years, e.g., indemnity.

For example, Civil Code section 1717 states that if a contract provision allows one party to recover attorney’s fees, it will be reciprocal to the other party. Without knowing about 1717, the contractor may want an attorney’s fees clause in the contract that only allows the contractor to recover fees if it has to sue to collect payment. But what happens if there is litigation and the other party can recover attorney fees, even if it isn’t mentioned? It becomes an issue of whether the contractor really wants the clause because it might engender litigation.

Similarly, while the law with respect to what general contractors can be indemnified for recently changed to limit indemnity rights, there still are ways to improve the situation. Though a general contractor cannot be indemnified for its active negligence, it typically has leverage over subcontractors to request that the general contractor is named as an additional insured on the subcontractor’s insurance.

It’s a good idea to update your contracts every two or three years with an attorney who specializes in construction contracts. The cost will be relatively modest in the long run, especially considering the benefits of that review.

Kevin P. Cody is a partner at Ropers Majeski Kohn & Bentley PC. Reach him at (408) 918-4557 or kcody@rmkb.com. To learn more about Kevin Cody.

Insights Legal Affairs is brought to you by Ropers Majeski Kohn & Bentley PC

Published in Northern California

Indemnity clauses are included in contracts to provide a means by which the contracting parties can shift the responsibility of risk.

“Indemnity clauses can expand, limit or even eliminate the obligations of one party to another with regard to property damage, personal injury and contractual obligations,” says Paula Devaney, Director, Claims Services, at ECBM. “Indemnity clauses are drafted in order to establish the terms and conditions upon which one party can shift risk associated with the performance of the contract.”

Smart Business spoke with Devaney about how to make indemnity clauses work for you, shifting risk away from your business.

What’s an example of how indemnity clauses work?

Here’s an example: Company A owns a building and retains Company B to complete parking lot repairs. As a result of the activities of Company B, a visitor to the building falls and sustains an injury. The visitor files a claim for damages against Company A. Pursuant to the indemnity clause in the contract, Company A demands that Company B respond to the claim since it arose out of their operations. If the contract did not include a properly drafted indemnity clause, Company A would have to bear the risk and costs of resolving the claim on their own behalf.

Do indemnification or insurance provisions apply first?

Indemnification provisions are evaluated first, as these clauses establish the parameters that will govern the risk being shifted. Insurance provisions are then evaluated to determine if the circumstances of the claim or demand will fit within the purview of the insurance coverage requested to be purchased. Not all of the risk that is shifted by an indemnity clause is or can be covered by insurance.

Both indemnity clauses and insurance are risk transfer vehicles. In a contractual relationship where an indemnity agreement exists, the parties will also include insurance language to support the indemnity. In the insurance world, the indemnity clause is commonly referred to as the ‘belt’ and the insurance provisions are referred to as the ‘suspenders.’

If the indemnity clause and insurance provisions are successfully drafted and implemented, the insurance purchased by the indemnitor will provide the indemnitee with a certain level of comfort that there is a means by which the indemnitor will be in a position to pay for the risk that has been shifted to them.

How does the language of the indemnity clause affect the end result? 

Language that must be thoroughly evaluated is anything in the clause that establishes very broad terms of the risk being transferred. Both parties who are depending on the viability of an indemnity clause should draft indemnity language that is specific to their relationship, complies with the jurisdiction in which the clause will be interpreted and clearly, or as best as possible, defines the proposed intent of both parties entering into the agreement. Effective communication is paramount to ensure that intent is clearly understood.

What must you include when creating a contract’s indemnity clause to provide the most protection for your company?

One way to establish a high level of clarity is to include or create definitions of key terms in the indemnity clause. Terms such as claim, damages and contractor/vendor conduct can be included in a definitions section of the contract so that there is little to question as to what type of act constitutes a breach, what constitutes a claim and what damages are subject to indemnification. Simplifying and defining the terms can allow a more clear and concise interpretation of the indemnity clause against the circumstances giving rise to the demand for indemnity.

The identification of the parties to be indemnified is also crucial. The party potentially granting indemnity will wish to limit the parties to be indemnified, whereas the party requesting indemnity will seek to expand or broaden the list of potential indemnitees.

The duty to defend and associated costs must be clearly established and can also include issues such as which party controls and/or must consent to defense, the degree to which one party must consent to settlement and the remedies available if there is a refusal to defend an indemnified claim.

Other factors to be addressed are:

  • Losses/damages or limitations on types of damages. Issues such as attorney’s fees must be included as a recoverable cost, while consequential damages should be contemplated along with fines and penalties.

  • The period of time in which an indemnity clause survives the contract.

  • Including and/or defining the type of event that can trigger the obligation to indemnify.

  • Insurance procurement. The indemnity clause in a contract should not rely on the viability of the entity granting the indemnity. If the indemnitor goes out of business, their insurance may still be in effect.

When your business is signing a contract that includes indemnity clauses, what should you watch out for?

It is crucial for both parties to read the contract, and specifically the indemnity provisions, carefully. Every indemnity clause is different. There is nothing standard, and many times nothing fair, about an indemnity clause. If you do not read the clause and carefully consider the implications, you can be accepting a tremendous amount of risk you never intended to undertake.

The indemnity clause should be drafted in a manner that carefully considers the intent of both parties. When negotiating indemnity provisions, you may win some battles and lose others. However, with effective communication between both parties and effective review of the contract by legal counsel and, just as importantly, your insurance broker, the intent of the contract will at least be understood. Therefore, you can enter the contractual relationship with an understanding of the risks and liabilities.

Paula Devaney is a Director, Claims Services, at ECBM. Reach her at (610) 668-7100, ext. 1216, or pdevaney@ecbm.com.

Insights Risk Management is brought to you by ECBM Insurance Brokers and Consultants

Published in Philadelphia