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Specificity requirement does not extend to limitations of liability, 7th Circuit rules

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The 7th Circuit Court of Appeals has ruled that a contract clause limiting liability stands because the two commercial entities that entered into the agreement were sophisticated and knowingly negotiated the terms.

SAMS Hotel Group LLC filed a diversity-jurisdiction suit against Environs, Inc., an architectural firm, for breach of contract and negligence. The hotel group had contracted with Environs to build a six-story Homewood Suites hotel in Fort Wayne.

Shortly after the contract was signed in March 2007, the design and construction process began. However, just as the hotel was nearing completion, structural defects were discovered that eventually led to the structure being condemned and demolished.

SAMS estimated its loss topped $4.2 million.

The original contract the two parties entered into provided Environs a flat fee of $70,000 for its work. The contract also contained a clause limiting Environs’ liability for breach of contract to an amount not exceeding “the total lump sum fee due to negligence, errors, omissions, strict liability, breach of contact or breach of warranty.”

SAMS filed a diversity-jurisdiction suit against Environs for breach of contract and negligence. The U.S. District Court of the Southern District of Indiana held the limitation of liability clause was enforceable which capped SAMS’s breach of contract claim at $70,000.

In SAMS Hotel Group, LLC, doing business as Homewood Suites Hotel v. Environs, Inc., 12-2717, the 7th Circuit affirmed.

SAMS argued that the limitation of liability provision in the contract was not enforceable because the provision did not refer specifically to a limit on damages for Environs’ own negligence. The provision, SAMS asserted, covered only Environs liability for negligence of third parties.

While Indiana courts have made specificity a requirement in indemnification and exculpatory clauses, they have not spoke clearly regarding limitation of liability clauses in sophisticated commercial contracts. SAMS argued the differences among the provisions were not significant so the specificity requirement should apply to the limitation of liability.

The Circuit Court was not persuaded. It held that the difference types of clauses serve different purposes and Indiana case law does not indicate they should be analyzed alike. Moreover, while a limitation of liability clause can be harsh when it limits a party’s liability to only nominal damages, SAMS knew what it was getting into.

“…SAMS and Environs were sophisticated commercial entities that knew the risks and freely bargained for the terms of the contract, including the limitation of liability clause. SAMS did not unknowingly agree to the limitation of liability clause or assume these risks,” Judge David Hamilton wrote for the court. “To the extent it suffered a harsh result, it cannot blame the general nature of limitation of liability clauses.”
 

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