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A Primer on the Validity and Effect of Waiver of Subrogation Clauses

Waiver of Subrogation Clauses: An Overview

Pursuant to typical “waiver of subrogation” clauses, the parties to a contract will agree to waive any rights of recovery against each other if the damage is covered by insurance. Thus, the risk of loss gets shifted to the insurer.

Courts almost always hold that waiver of subrogation clauses are valid because they advance several important social goals, such as encouraging parties to anticipate risks and procure insurance covering those risks, thereby avoiding future litigation. Waiver of subrogation clauses have been validated even in the face of anti-indemnity, anti-exculpatory and anti-subrogation statutes. See Best Friends Pet Care, Inc. v. Design Learned, Inc., 77 Conn. App. 167, 823 A.2d 329 (2003); May Dept. Store v. Center Developers, Inc., 266 Ga. 806, 471 S.E.2d 194 (1996); 747 Third Ave. Corp. v. Killarney, 225 A.D.2d 375, 639 N.Y.S.2d 32 (1st Dep't 1996). These courts held that waiver of subrogation clauses are not intended to relieve a party of liability for its own negligence, but are instead risk allocation clauses. Thus, the clauses did not violate the relevant statutes.

Illinois Law on Waiver of Subrogation Clauses

There is relatively little case law in Illinois regarding waivers of subrogation clauses. Although the case is over twelve years old, Intergovernmental Risk Management v. O’Donnell, Wicklund, Pigozzi & Peterson Architects, 295 Ill.App. 3d, 692 N.E.2d 739 (1st Dist. 1998) (“IRM”) remains the premier case in Illinois with regard to waiver of subrogation issues. In that case, the Village of Bartlett (“the Village”) was in the process of expanding its village hall (“the project”). Part of the project entailed constructing a new police station adjacent to the updated village hall. The Village contracted with Defendant O’Donnell, Wicklund, Pigozzi & Peterson Architects (“O’Donnell”) to provide architectural drawings and specification for the project. Pursuant to the contract, the Village purchased insurance from Travelers Insurance Co. through the IRM program. On January 28, 1994, a fire occurred at the newly constructed police station, which caused over $114,000 worth of damage. IRM and Travelers paid the Village that amount pursuant to their policies. IRM and Travelers then filed a subrogation action against O’Donnell, claiming that O’Donnell’s negligence caused the fire and sought reimbursement of the monies paid to the Village pursuant to the insurance policies.

In its motion to dismiss, O’Donnell argued that the plaintiffs’ claims were barred because the Village had waived its subrogation rights in the contracts for the project. The Owner-Architect Agreement between the Village and O’Donnell contained the following waiver of subrogation clause:

“The Owner and Architect waive all rights against each other and against the contractors, consultants, agents and employees of the other for damages, but only to the extent covered by property insurance during construction.”

The plaintiffs argued, inter alia, that the waiver of subrogation provisions could not apply to damage caused by the negligent and wrongful acts of the defendant. The plaintiffs contended that the waiver of subrogation clauses violated public policy by encouraging negligence. However, the court disagreed. It stated that “the purpose of waiver of subrogation provisions is to allow the parties to a construction contract to exculpate each other from personal liability in the event of property loss or damage to the work to the extent each party is covered by insurance.” IRM. at 792. The court noted that waiver of subrogation clause “shifts the risk of loss to the insurance company regardless of which party is at fault.” Thus, it did not matter whether the fire loss was caused by O’Donnell’s negligence so long as the loss was a covered loss that occurred during construction. Id. at 793.

The plaintiffs also argued that the waiver provisions violated of public policy in that they act as indemnity agreements holding the defendant harmless from its own negligence. The court rejected that argument as well. It noted that the waiver provisions do not involve injury suffered by a construction worker or a member of the general public but instead, damage suffered by one of the contracting parties due to the alleged negligence of another. Id. Thus, waiver of subrogation clauses do not violate the public policy considerations which outlaw indemnity agreements. Instead, they merely limit the parties’ recovery to loss sustained to the parties to the agreement and only to the extent that it was covered by insurance. Id. at 794.

The IRM court held that the waiver of subrogation clause was perfectly valid and that it applied to the insurers’ claims. Thus, the plaintiffs’ claims were barred and they could not recover the amounts that they paid to the Village. As mentioned above, IRM is still the preeminent case in Illinois with regard to the validity and effect of waivers of subrogation clauses. Insurers need to be mindful of the effect that such clauses may have on their rights.

Conclusion

Although courts nationwide consider waiver of subrogation clauses to be valid, there are circumstances under which these clauses will not be enforced. For example, in order to establish a waiver of subrogation, it is necessary to show by clear evidence an intentional relinquishment of the right. Thus, if the waiver of subrogation clause is ambiguous or confusing, if the clause conflicts with other contract provisions, or if the intention of the parties is not clear, then courts will not enforce it. See Sutton Hill Associates v. Landes, 775 F. Supp. 682 (S.D. N.Y. 1991); U.S. Fidelity and Guar. Co. v. Friedman, 540 So. 2d 160 (Fla. Dist. Ct. App. 4th Dist. 1989); Charter Oak Fire Ins. Co. v. National Wholesale Liquidators of Lodi, Inc., 2002 WL 519738 (S.D. N.Y. 2002) (applying New Jersey law).

Additionally, courts will not enforce waiver of subrogation clauses where the underlying insurance did not cover the loss at issue. See Gap, Inc. v. Red Apple Companies, Inc., 282 A.D.2d 119, 725 N.Y.S.2d 312 (1st Dep't 2001);Chelm Management Co. v. Wieland-Davco Corp., 23 Fed. Appx. 430 (6th Cir. 2001) (applying Ohio law). This is of particular importance, as an insurer can craft a condition to coverage that protects its own subrogation rights. As indicated, it is common for insureds to include waiver of subrogation clauses in their contracts with other companies during the course of their business. Waivers under those circumstances will generally take place pre-loss. While these pre-loss waivers may be acceptable, it is important for insurers to make sure the insured does not do anything after a loss which would prejudice the insurer's right to subrogation. A common condition to coverage that protects an insurer’s subrogation rights will read as follows:

“If the insured has rights to recover all or part of any payment we have made under this policy, those rights are transferred to us. The insured must do everything necessary to secure our rights and must do nothing after the loss to impair them.”

A condition like the one above added into the insurance contract will protect an insurer’s right to subrogation in the event that the insured, after a loss occurs, attempts to enter into an exculpatory agreement that includes a waiver of subrogation clause. While there is little an insurer can do about a pre-loss waiver of subrogation clause (aside from the defenses to enforcement discussed above), a provision similar to the one above will at least protect the insurer from post-loss waivers.

©2022 Johnson & Bell, Ltd. All Rights Reserved.National Law Review, Volume I, Number 102
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About this Author

Associate

Daniel R. Bedell concentrates his area of practice in insurance coverage. Mr. Bedell has been with the firm since 2008, when he started with the firm's law clerk program.

(312) 984-0206
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