Contracting Diseases: Mishaps in contract drafting, limitation of liability edition

1 Aug

One of the problems I regularly encounter with new clients is that they have come to me too late to do the most good. This frequently happens in the area of drafting contracts relating to their business or project. Many people say they want a “simple” contract, or they think they know what they’re signing, or that they trust the other party to the deal, so they don’t need to overthink what they’re doing. A recent decision by a Federal Court in Indiana demonstrates how costly this kind of “penny-wise” thinking can be.

SAMS Hotel Group, LLC set out to build a new hotel. Unfortunately, the architecture firm the company retained to provide the design work for the project apparently did not employ or even consult with a registered professional structural engineer for the project. The county building officials later found structural design defects, which resulted in the condemnation of the structure and its ultimate demolition before the hotel ever opened its doors to the public.

SAMS sued its architect, Environs, Inc. The trial court held that Environs breached the applicable standard of care by failing to involve a structural engineer and for failing to timely inspect the project during construction. SAMS proved damages in the amount of $4.2 million.

Now the story turns truly tragic for the developer. Environs incorporated a clause in its contract with SAMS that sought to limit its liability:

The Owner [SAMS] agrees that to the fullest extent permitted by law, Environs/Architects/Planners, Inc. total liability to [SAMS] shall not exceed the amount of the total lump sum fee due to negligence, errors, omissions, strict liability, breach of contract, or breach of warranty.

SAMS, as the “Owner” under the applicable contract, paid Environs a lump sum fee of $70,000. The court enforced this limitation of liability provision and held that SAMS could recover only $70,000 of its $4.2 million loss, even though the source of Environs’ liability arose out of negligence rather than a breach of the parties’ contract. The United States Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit affirmed the trial court’s ruling. It noted, under Indiana law, that sophisticated parties aren’t entitled to protection from even the apparently unfair terms of the contracts they sign:

[T]he general rule of freedom of contract includes the freedom to make a bad bargain.

Parties are free to enter into any kind of contract they like, but just know that if you assume you are sophisticated enough not to need a lawyer’s assistance with your contract, the court just might agree with you and hold you to what you signed.

The complete order of the Federal District Court for the Southern District of Indiana can be read here.

The complete opinion of the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals can be read here.

Matt Drewes contributed this article. Matt is a Shareholder with Thomsen Nybeck.  He is the head of the firm’s eight-member Community Association Representation Group and the firm’s Creditors’ Remedies Group, and practices in the areas of business and real estate litigation and transactions, employment law, construction litigation, community association law, debtor/creditor law, and insurance. He has been included in the annual list of Minnesota’s Rising Stars for several years, and has been quoted in print publications such as the Minneapolis StarTribune, Minnesota Lawyer, Habitat Magazine, and on various websites including Yahoo!Finance.com, Bankrate.com, MSN.com, HOALeader.com, and elsewhere on issues involving construction litigation, community associations, and real property issues. He can be reached at mdrewes@tn-law.com or by phone at 952.835.7000.

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