The Supreme Court ruling in Couvillion Group, LLC v. Plaquemines Parish Government, 2020 -00074 (La. 4/27/20) is a reminder that an indemnity claim must be sufficiently related to the principal demand and that contract indemnity provisions are to be strictly construed.
In Couvillion, the general contractor sued the owner of a public works port project for contract delay damages resulting from a cease work order issued to allow redesign of a fuel tank platform. When the contractor submitted its delay claim, the owner requested that its project engineer review it and make recommendations. The engineer recommended payment of a little over $1 million dollars. When the owner refused to pay, the contractor sued. In response, the owner filed a third-party demand against the engineer alleging that its recommendation was erroneous and excessive and that, if it was bound by the engineer’s recommendation, then the engineer must indemnify the owner.
On behalf of the engineer, Keogh Cox attorneys argued that the engineer should not be required to reimburse the owner for any delay costs and asked for dismissal through an exception of no cause of action. Code of Procedure Article 1111 provides that a defendant in a principal action may bring in any person who may be liable to him for all or part of the principal demand. Here, that was not the situation. The engineer was not liable to the owner for any part of the contractor’s delay claim because the engineer did not cause the delay. The delay damages were incurred before the engineer made a recommendation for payment. The events giving rise to the two claims were separate and distinct: the main demand arose from the project delay and the third- party demand arose from the engineer’s recommendation of the claim amount. The Court commented that the principal claim against the owner for delay damages was too attenuated from the owner’s claim against the engineer, thus the third-party demand was improper.
The owner also relied on the indemnity provision in the engineer’s contract that required the engineer to indemnify the owner against any and all claims for personal injury or “damages to property” that may arise from its services. The Court held that the plain meaning of the term did not include the economic-only losses related to the subject delay claim. The Court further reasoned that indemnity agreements are to be strictly construed, rejecting the owner’s broader interpretation.