California Court of Appeals Weighs in on the Duty to Defend and Suggests “Fetch” New Motion

It’s not uncommon for construction contracts to include indemnity provisions requiring the indemnitor (typically, the lower-tiered party) to “defend, indemnify and hold harmless” the indemnitee (typically, the higher-tiered party) from third-party claims. But when an indemnitor refuses to defend an indemnitee, who gets decide that issue, the jury or the court?

In Centex Homes v. R-Help Construction Company, Case No. B276708 (March 11, 2019), the 2nd District Court of Appeal answered that question. They also framed the issue better than I could, so I’ll let the court speak for itself:

A subcontractor is hired by a developer to install utility boxes in a subdivision. The subcontract contains a clause requiring the subcontractor to indemnify the developer for all claims arising out of the subcontractor’s work.

A plaintiff in an underlying tort action brings an action against the subcontractor and the developer for injuries allegedly arising from the subcontractor’s work. The subcontractor does not defend the developer.

The trial court submits the question of the subcontractor’s duty to defend to a jury. The jury finds the plaintiff’s injuries were not caused by the subcontractor’s work. Does this end the matter? No.

The end of the trial is not the end of the case. The parties are back to the beginning on the issue of duty to defend. Why? Where plaintiff in an underlying tort action alleges that his injuries arose out of the subcontractor’s work, the developer is entitled as a matter of law to a defense under the indemnity clause. It is error to submit the question of the subcontractor’s duty to defend to a jury. We reverse and remand.

Background

Centex Homes (Centex) contracted with R-Help Construction Company, Inc. (R-Help) to trench, install and inspect utility boxes and conduits at a residential construction project in the City of Thousand Oaks, California. The subcontract required R-Help to defend and indemnify Centex from all claims “to the extent such Claim(s) in whole or in part arise out of or relate to [R-Help’s work].”

Following R-Help’s completion of its work, a lawsuit is filed by Matthias Wagener who was injured when he fell into a utility box. What Mr. Wagener was doing standing on top of a utility box, I don’t know, but he sued both Centex and R-Help alleging that the “defendants” negligently managed, maintained and inspected the utility box cover such that it created an unstable platform.”

During the discovery phase of the litigation, Mr. Wagener was asked about the basis of his claims, to which he responded:

It appears as though R-Help installed and thereafter abandoned the subject junction box or hand holder and adjoining conduit, having installed the lid without the prescribed bolts specifically designed to keep the SCE lid bolted to the junction box. Acting as Centex'[s] agent, R-Help and Centex are both jointly and severally liable to plaintiff for the injuries he suffered and the damages he sustained.

I’m guessing he had help with that response. At any rate, after receiving Mr. Wagener’s response, Centex tendered Mr. Wagener’s claim to R-Help demanding that R. Help defend and indemnify Centex pursuant to the subcontract. After R-Help failed to respond, Centex filed a cross-complaint against R-Help for breach of contract, indemnity and declaratory relief.

Centex later settled with Mr. Wagener, leaving Centex’s cross-complaint against R-Help to be decided.

At the subsequent trial between Centex and R-Help, contradictory evidence was presented by  the parties. Centex’s witnesses testified that the utility box was installed by R-Help, while R-Help’s witnesses testified that it wasn’t. After the case was presented to the jury, the jury found that R-Help did not install the utility box and had no duty to defend Centex.

Centex appealed.

The Court of Appeal Decision

For those of us who practice regularly in the area of construction law the issue on appeal was pretty straightforward: A contractual duty to defend implies an immediate duty to defend. After all, what’s the point of including a defense obligation in a contract if a party can just punt the duty down the road, by which time, even if a trier-of-fact was to determine that there was a duty to defend it would be too late anyway?

Well, that’s exactly what Centex argued on appeal. Citing Crawford v. Weather Shield Mfg., Inc. (2008) 44 Cal.4th 541, Centex argued that the California Supreme Court had held “that the duty to defend . . . arises immediately upon the proper tender of defense . . . and before . . . litigation has determined whether indemnity is actually owed.”

The Court of Appeal agreed:

Here Wagener claimed his injuries arose out of or related to R-Help’s work for Centex. Under Crawford, the duty to defend arose immediately upon the proper tender of defense of a claim embraced by the indemnity agreement. The duty to defend was not a question of fact for the jury; the trial court was compelled to determine as a matter of law that Wagener’s claim was embraced by the indemnity agreement.

The Court of Appeal did caution, however, that an escape hatch does exist. Quoting the Supreme Court in Montrose Chemical Corp. v. Superior Court (1993) 6 Cal.4th 289, 298, an insurance case, the Court of Appeal noted:

It would be pointless . . . to require an insurer to defend an action where the undisputed facts developed early in the investigation conclusively show, despite a contrary allegation in the complaint, that the underlying acts occurred on a date when the policy was not in effect or at a location concededly not covered by the policy.

The Crawford decision has even spawned a specific indemnity-related motion, the Crawford-motion, filed by an indemnitee (i.e., the party being indemnified) against an indemnitor (i.e., the party providing the indemnity) to force an indemnitor to defend an indemnitee pursuant to an indemnity agreement. Note: even if an indemnity agreement does not expressly include a defense obligation, a defense obligation will be implied, unless expressly waived. See Civil Code section 2778.

Interestingly, the Centex decision also seems to suggest that an indemnitor could  file a motion, let’s call it a Centex-motion, to get out of the obligation to defend an indemnitee, and perhaps even, as a means of avoiding liability altogether since most defense and indemnity obligations are premised on some fault or presumed fault of the indemnitor. Since, like one of the mean girls in the movie Mean Girls, I don’t have the gravitas to make up the name of a new motion (recall Gretchen’s attempt to get the term “fetch” to catch on), let’s just call it what it is: a motion for summary judgment.

Conclusion

The Centex decision confirms that the duty to defend is immediate and, as can be surmised from the Crawford decision although it’s not expressly stated in that decision, is not a factual issue to be determined by a jury. The Centex decision also suggests that an indemnitor subject to a defense obligation could potentially file a motion (a Centex-motion) to avoid defense obligations if it can conclusively show by undisputed facts that no defense is owed under the indemnity agreement.  That is so “Fetch!”

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