Published on:

More Limitation Of Liability And Tribal Sovereign Immunity

This post is a follow-up to a couple of prior postings. I realize this makes it look like I lack creativity since I’m not saying anything new. But I can’t help it. The fascist running dog who is the Virtual Managing Editor of the has insisted that I do more linking back to prior blog postings. He says this is necessary for “search engine optimization.” I don’t even know what that means. Goofy legal stuff — like maiden rents or the fertile octogenarian — I understand. Website technospeak, I don’t get.

In any event, updating of a couple of earlier blog postings is my attempt at keeping the e-tyrant at bay.

On the first of October, I wrote about limitation of liability clauses in this post. I ran into a problem with one of these horrid clauses a week or two ago and had to forcibly cut its heart out. In the process, though, I found a 2008 Colorado case that I think illustrates the points I was making in the earlier post.

In the Colorado case, a retail merchandise distributor, Core-Mark, had a large warehouse where it stored inventory. Core-Mark entered into a contract with a security company, Sonitrol, to install and monitor an alarm system in the warehouse. The alarm system utilized sound detectors. If sound over a certain level was detected, the system recorded it and alerted a central monitoring facility. The operators at the central monitoring facility were then supposed to listen in live to determine if anything underhanded was afoot and call the authorities if necessary.

521402_burn_baby_burn.jpgOne night three miscreants broke into Core-Mark’s warehouse. They spent hours inside, making a heckuva racket, looting the place. The alarm company’s sound detectors picked it all up and repeatedly alerted the central monitoring facility. The operators there (who must have been busy updating their blogs) just kept turning the alarm off. When the burglars finally left they set the warehouse on fire. The alarm company never called the police or the fire department. The warehouse and everything in it burned to the ground. The total loss amounted to about $20 million.

Core-Mark sued the alarm company since – Gee! – Sonitrol was hired to protect the warehouse and did not actually do it. Sonitrol pulled the “can’t touch this” dance, pointing to the limitation of liability clause in its contract. The clause said Sonitrol’s “liability shall be limited to a sum equal to the total of one-half year’s monitoring payments, or five hundred dollars ($500) whichever is less.” So Sonitrol argued that it was A-OK to pay Core-Mark a grand total of $500 for its loss.

The trial court judge — who was apparently a platinum level member of the Adam Smith fan club — accepted the alarm company’s position. Core-Mark appealed and the Colorado Court of Appeals reversed. The appellate court paid lip service to freedom of contract but dug around in the dusty corners of the law library to find a restriction that applied. Judge Ney’s opinion said it was against public policy (in Colorado, anyway) to have a contract provision that exonerated a party from its own “willful and wanton” conduct. So the appellate court sent the case back – some six years after the fire occurred and about five years after the lawsuit started — for a jury trial on whether Sonitrol’s actions were “willful and wanton.”

(By the way, isn’t “Ney” just a great name for a judge, especially if Monty Python were the outfit doing the judicial appointments? “We are the judges who say NEY.” )

The Core-Mark case demonstrates my original point. You can put these things in contracts but you better not count on them as always covering your southern quadrant. The case also points up the reason I detest these clauses. I mean, who wants to hire a burglar alarm company who says we can’t really be responsible for calling the cops when the burglars break in? You’re better off doing business with someone who will actually stand behind their promises. Or just putting the fake “Protected By” stickers on the windows and doors.

One other follow-up note I need to squeeze in. After writing about tribal sovereign immunity in this post a couple weeks back, I found that some people were thinking I was referring to ANCSA corporations. (OK, OK, I only know of this one guy who actually got confused.) ANCSA corporations are formed under state law and do not get the benefit of sovereign immunity. I was talking about federally recognized Indian tribes and the entities that the tribes set up as authorized under federal Indian law. ANCSA corporations and tribes are different organizations, although the shareholders/members of the two overlap.

Hey, it’s an easy mistake to make. As one of my esteemed colleagues is fond of saying: “The law is tricky she-it.”