Last month, a state judge in Minnesota awarded summary judgment to a lettuce supplier of restaurants associated with an E. coli outbreak in 2006. The restaurant supplier brought suit against its suppliers. The suit appears to have been based at least in part on an indemnification agreement between Vistar (which delivered lettuce to restaurants) and Bix (which supplied lettuce to Vistar). According to the court, the agreement required Bix to “indemnify and hold harmless the Buyer and its customers from any claim, demand, loss, damage, liability, cost and expense, directly or indirectly, arising out of, or in connection with, or resulting from, the willful or negligent acts or omissions of the seller . . . sold by the Seller . . . to the buyer.”
Vistar, according to the court, “delivered sealed packages” of lettuce to the restaurants and did not process the product. Bix “both processed the lettuce (chopped it up) and packaged the lettuce.”
The court granted summary judgment to Vistar for two reasons:
(1) Vistar was the “classic passive seller in the chain of distribution” and therefore was not a manufacturer under Minnesota law; and
(2) The language of the indemnity “is clear, inclusive, and unequivocal,” and “Vistar’s tender of the claims against it to Bix should be honored.”
As to the latter reason, the court found relevant that “Bix has $2,000,000 in direct coverage and $10,000,000 in excess coverage insurance that would cover the claims made against it.”
A couple of observations:
1. Importance of Being Named an Additional Insured – Surprisingly, it does not appear from the judge’s decision that Bix was required to name Vistar as an additional insured. Had Bix’s carrier named Vistar as an additional insured, Vistar could have recovered against Bix’s insurer directly. Requiring a supplier to provide insurance (and verifying that the supplier has named you as an additional insured without unacceptable conditions) is a relatively easy, yet important step to protect your business.
2. Liberal Reading of Indemnity Clause – The court says that the indemnity obligation, which requires “willful or negligent acts or omissions,” is “clear, inclusive and unequivocal.” Yet the court found no “willful or negligent act or omissions” on the part of Bix. In fact, commenting on Bix’s own motion for summary judgment requesting that the court rule it too is not liable as a matter of law, the court said that Bix’s “argument is not without merit.” Not all courts may interpret this indemnification clause so favorably in the absence of a supplier’s negligence. This is yet another reason to ensure that your supplier has provided adequate insurance.