If there’s one topic that’s guaranteed to make my clients’ eyes glaze over, it’s indemnities. My clients will fight to the death regarding the business points that they believe are important. But, often, by the time we get to Section 18 on page 13, they’re ready to mentally check out of the conference call and leave the lawyers to fight about the legalese.
From a legal fee standpoint, this isn’t a great idea — Lawyers can fight all day about just about anything, but especially about indemnities, because, truly, they’re just risk shifting. There is no “right” or “wrong.”
Just think of an indemnity as insurance, without a premium — Great to have one in your favor, not so great to be offering one to the other party.
When someone says, “You should indemnify us for all claims related to your breach, or your negligence” what they’re really saying is, “I don’t want to have to prove that you were in breach or that you were negligent. If it looks like you might be, I want you to be on the hook. And, I don’t want you to have any defenses or arguments about why it’s not your fault or problem.”
Here’s a hypothetical example:
Startup is running a software as a service and offers access to their service via an API. Big Company wants to wrap the API’s functionality into their product or service and offer it to their end users.
The indemnity issues *really* matter:
1. Who should be on the hook if the end users breach the end user terms of service? (e.g. what if the end users break the law? Shouldn’t that be the end users’ problem? Does it make sense to have one company responsible for all legal costs and damages associated with end users’ actions? If so, which company? Big Company will try to make certain it is Startup.)
2. Who should be on the hook for a patent lawsuit regarding the combination of the API’s functionality with the other side’s functionality? (In the absence of an indemnity, the liability would be shared. But Big Company’s default form will try to make it entirely Startup’s issue.)
3. Who should be on the hook for changes in the law that require changes to the software/service? (Again, this is an ordinary risk of doing business that all companies face. But Big Company will try to push the entirety of this risk and all associated costs on to Startup.)
The biggest issue with an indemnity, however, is that unless drafted narrowly, it will cover *all* claims, regardless of their value. So, if a malicious, false, and/or vindictive claim is filed, the indemnifying party is still on the hook. An indemitor can end up insuring against the defense and settlement of claims filed by the indemnitee’s enemies or folks looking to go after deep pockets for a quick settlement.
As a final risk, many General Liability insurance policies explicitly carve out indemnity obligations from “insured contracts.” I always advise my clients to check with their insurance brokers to find out if they are accepting un-insured liability by taking on an indemnity obligation. At a minimum, the increased premiums required to accept such a clause (if you can get coverage) can be a useful bargaining chip when discussing whether an indemnity is “standard” or “required” or “normal.”