Glenn West | Weil, Gotshal & Manges
Despite the proliferation of R&W insurance as the sole recourse for buyers with respect to sellers’ breach of representations and warranties, an indemnification remedy against sellers (subject to a cap) continues to find its way into many private company acquisition agreements. Indemnification, as a concept, originated in the context of one party to a contract agreeing to ensure that the counterparty was held harmless against claims by third parties for which the indemnifying party had agreed to be responsible. In other words, indemnification was not a concept that ordinarily applied as a means of ensuring that a non-breaching party was compensated by the breaching party for direct losses the non-breaching party sustained by virtue of the breaching party’s breach of contract. Indeed, absent an exclusive remedy provision, a non-breaching party is entitled to damages under the common law for a breaching party’s failure to abide by the terms of the contract irrespective of whether that contract contains an indemnification clause. Nevertheless, indemnification provisions in most acquisition agreements today purport to cover losses sustained by a non-breaching party, whether those losses arise directly from the breach or arise as a result of a third party claim. But the historical fact that indemnification was not normally associated with direct (or first party) claims continues to cause courts some confusion and requires care by deal lawyers to avoid misunderstandings and unintended results.
The dictionary definition of “indemnify” includes both “secur[ing] against hurt, loss, or damages,” as well as “compensat[ing] for incurred hurt, loss, or damage.” Nonetheless, cases across the country have suggested that there is a presumption that the term “indemnify” only applies to losses arising from third party claims, not losses incurred directly by a party as a result of a counterparty’s default under a contract. While most of these cases do not involve the indemnification provisions contained in private company acquisition agreements, and are focused on whether the indemnification provision allows recovery for attorneys’ fees related to direct claims between the parties, it is not clear that they can be completely discounted on that basis.
To overcome the general presumption that an indemnification provision only covers third party claims, it is important to state in clear and unequivocal terms that the indemnification provision applies to both direct and third party claims. Language that simply provides that the breaching party shall indemnify the non-breaching party for losses sustained by the non-breaching party, as a result of the breaching party’s breach of representations, warranties or covenants set forth in the agreement, may be deemed insufficient to clearly cover first party (or direct) claims, as opposed to be presumed to only apply to third party claims. While we have addressed this issue before in a series of posts to Weil’s Global Private Equity blog, some recent Delaware cases have suggested that a reminder of these principles may be in order.
For example, in a recent Delaware Superior Court decision, Sarn Energy LLC v. Tatra Defence Vehicle A.S., C.A. No.: N17C-06-355 EMD CCLD, 2019 WL 6525256 (Del. Super. October 31, 2019), a party’s claims for attorney’s fees and costs incurred in pursuing its claim for damages against the breaching party were denied despite the existence of the following indemnification clause in Section 11 of the Agreement:
11. Indemnification. Parties shall defend, indemnify and hold harmless each other and its officers, directors, employees, agents, parent, subsidiaries and other affiliates, from and against any and all damages, costs, liability, and expense whatsoever (including attorneys’ fees and related disbursements) incurred by reason of (a) any failure by Parties to perform any covenant or agreement of the Parties set forth herein; (b) injury to or death of any person or any damage to or loss of property which is due to the negligence and/or willful acts of the Parties; or (c) any breach by Parties of any representation, warranty, covenant or agreement under this Agreement. (emphasis added)
Notwithstanding Section 11’s seeming breadth, the court held that: “Section 11 is a standard indemnity provision that applies to third party actions not to first party claims like the one asserted here by [plaintiff].” And, as such, it did not otherwise qualify as a valid fee shifting clause that overrode the American Rule which “provides that litigants generally are responsible for their own litigation costs.”
Similarly, in a granted motion for re-argument in Winshall v. Viacom International, Inc., C.A. No.: N15C-06-137 EMD CCLD, 2019 WL 5787989 (Del. Super. November 6, 2019), the court held that the following indemnification clause in Section 8.6 of the Merger Agreement only applied to third party claims, not to first party claims:
a) Indemnification. Subject to the limitations set forth in this Article VIII, from and after the Effective Time, each of Parent [Viacom] and MergerCo, jointly and severally, shall indemnify, defend and hold harmless each Merger Consideration Recipient [Mr. Winshall and the other Harmonix Shareholders] against any and all Losses actually incurred or suffered by any such Merger Consideration Recipient as a result of:
(i) the breach of any representation or warranty of Parent or MergerCo set forth in this Agreement or in any Ancillary Document; and
(ii) the breach of any covenant or agreement of Parent or MergerCo contained in this Agreement or in any Ancillary Document.
Losses were defined in the Merger Agreement as follows:
any and all losses, liabilities, damages, claims, awards, judgments, diminution in value, Taxes, fees, costs and expenses (including reasonable attorneys’ fees and expenses, expenses of investigation, defense, prosecution and settlement of claims (including any claims under Article VIII hereof), court costs or enforcement of the provisions of this Agreement) suffered or incurred by such Person, plus any interest that may accrue on the foregoing.
According to the court, the absence of explicit language covering the reimbursement of attorneys’ fees for directly enforcing the breaching party’s obligations (i.e., first party claims), which were the only claims asserted, meant that the indemnification clause was limited to third party claims. Hmmmm.
But, in Collab9. LLC v. En Pointe Technologies Sales, LLC, C.A. NO. N16C-12-032 MMJ CCLD, C.A. NO. N19C-02-141 MMJ CCLD, 2019 WL 4454412 (Del. Super. September 17, 2019), the court was able to conclude that the indemnification provision covered both direct and third party claims (this case did not, however, involve a dispute over the recovery of attorney’s fees). After noting that typically “indemnification [only] comes into play when one party to a contract agrees to indemnify a second party to the contract for liability resulting from third-party claims against the second party,” the court note that the Asset Purchase Agreement “states that Seller indemnification may apply ‘whether or not involving a third party claim’ resulting from ‘any breach or inaccuracy of a representation or warranty….’” The court further noted additional language that made clear that indemnification was available for both direct and third party claims.
The good news is that most private company acquisition agreements cover this issue explicitly and make clear that despite the historical limitations placed on the word “indemnify,” both direct and third party claims are intended to be covered by the indemnification regime. Moreover, the indemnification provisions in many private company acquisition agreements use terms more expansive than simply “indemnify, defend and hold harmless,” which are terms more traditionally related to third party claims. But many ancillary agreements do not explicitly cover this issue or use the more expansive terms.
Perhaps we would all do well to heed this observation from a 2012 Delaware Superior Court case attempting to decipher an indemnification provision:
When the Court considers the indemnity clause here, even if the Court was kind in its description, it would have to guess that it was written by counsel who never litigate, whose days are filled with the excitement of writing contract terms that only they will understand or can reasonably interpret, and who obviously have lost the ability to write in a clear and common-sense manner. While this may be a well-respected and sought-after art form, it does not help the client insure their expectations and demands are understood by all parties. Instead, the Court is left with the challenge of deciphering terms that were perhaps in vogue in the nineteenth century but whose days have clearly passed.
Remember, the word “indemnify” carries historical baggage; be aware and use care.
Endnotes (↵ returns to text)
- See e.g., TranSched Sys. Ltd. v. Versyss Transit Sols., LLC, 2012 WL 1415466, at *1-*2 (Del. Super. Mar. 29, 2012); Hopper Assoc., Ltd. v. AGS Computers, Inc., 548 N.E.2d 903, 905 (N.Y. 1989); Hot Rods, LLC v. Northrup Grumman Sys. Corp., 272 Cal. App.4th 1166, 1179 (2015); Claybar v. Samson Exploration, LLC, NO. 09–16–00435–CV, 2018 WL 651258, at *3 (Tex. App.—Beaumont Feb. 1, 2018); see also Kenneth A. Adams, A Manual of Style for Contract Drafting §13.416 (4th Ed. 2017).↵
- See Richard L. Levine, Peter Feist and Jessica N. Djilani, Clarifying the “Unmistakable Clarity” Standard in Contractual Indemnification Provisions, 85 U.S.L.W. 1391 (April 13, 2017), reproduced here. The fact that many of these cases concern the recovery of attorneys’ fees is relevant because of the strong presumption imposed by the “American Rule,” which states that in the absence of a “specific and explicit” provision in a contract or statute requiring a party to pay the attorneys’ fees of the other party, each party is responsible for their own attorneys’ fees. Indeed, the American Rule’s presumption is so strong that the United States Supreme Court recently held (unanimously) that a statute requiring one party to pay “all expenses of the proceedings” was not sufficiently clear and explicit to rebut the American Rule’s presumption that each party was required to pay their own attorney’s fees. Peter v. Nantkwest, Inc., No. 18-801, 589 U.S. __ (Dec. 11, 2019, Sotomayor, J.). Thus, it may be that it is the American Rule’s presumption that is sometimes at work more than the presumption that the word “indemnify” ordinarily only applies to third party claims.↵
- Peter Feist & Jessica N. Djilani, Indemnification Provisions: Are Attorneys’ Fees (And Other Expenses) Incurred In Claims Between Contracting Parties Covered? – Part 1, Weil’s Global Private Equity Watch, June 9, 2016, available here; Peter Feist & Jessica N. Djilani, Indemnification Provisions: Are Attorneys’ Fees (And Other Expenses) Incurred In Claims Between Contracting Parties Covered? – Part 2, Weil’s Global Private Equity Watch, June 14, 2016, available here; Peter Feist & Jessica N. Djilani, Indemnification Provisions: Are Attorneys’ Fees (And Other Expenses) Incurred In Claims Between Contracting Parties Covered? – Part 3, Weil’s Global Private Equity Watch, June 23, 2016, available here; Peter Feist & Jessica N. Djilani, Indemnification Provisions: Are Attorneys’ Fees (And Other Expenses) Incurred In Claims Between Contracting Parties Covered? – Part 4, Weil’s Global Private Equity Watch, July 7, 2016, available here.↵
- Such terms may include “pay, compensate, and reimburse for,” in addition to “defend, indemnify, and hold harmless from and against.”↵
- TranSched Sys. Ltd. v. Versyss Transit Sols., LLC, 2012 WL 1415466, at *3 (Del. Super. Mar. 29, 2012). I suspect contract drafting guru, Ken Adams, would agree with those sentiments. See Kenneth A. Adams, A Manual of Style for Contract Drafting, “Introduction,” xxxvi-xxxvii (4th Ed. 2017).↵