The Importance of Defining Terms in a Contract

The terms in a contractual agreement between parties can have the effect of changing entire meanings of contracts. This is especially true in more complex litigation and more complex business agreements. If a business agreement requires the participation of multiple partners or parties, an ambiguously defined contract can have the effect of increasing the amount of litigation which will occur every time there is a legal dispute between any or all of the parties. The clear practical effect of writing clear-cut and well defined contracts is that, in the long run, there will be less of a chance that any dispute will require a long, drawn-out litigation process which has the effect of draining the wallets of all the parties involved.

This is most important where one or more of the parties is a single individual with limited resources, and in some situations, is represented by smaller firms that have much less financial resources compared to bigger business entities with more resources and financing at their disposal. As a legal practice, any person that becomes part of a contractual agreement should clearly define any type of ambiguous terminology in an effort to save the agreement from getting the definitional application of common law or practice. Never is this more necessary than when an individual is pushed up against an insurance agency that holds their financial future in their hands. The importance of defining a contract can be clearly seen in the case of Federal Insurance Company v. New Hampshire Insurance Co.

Both Federal and New Hampshire insurance companies became involved in litigation because they both insured Thomas and Betts Corporation (hereinafter T&B). T&B made a product which contributed to an explosion at an aluminum processing plant in Gramercy, Louisiana, leaving employee Wayne Robinson with injuries. Ultimately, Mr. Robinson sued T&B, which had liability insurance from both Federal and New Hampshire. Thus, when the suit began, Federal and New Hampshire’s policies kicked into effect. New Hampshire was the “first insurer” for T&B. Federal, on the other hand, was T&B’s second layer excess insurer. On the eve of the trial, Mr. Robinson came to an agreement with T&B which had the effect of potentially extinguishing the law suit. T&B was going to pay Mr. Robinson $5 million dollars in damages for his unfortunate bodily injuries, and an additional $1.2 million in consideration for a potential breach of contract claim by another plaintiff company against Mr. Robinson. Subsequent to this settlement, New Hampshire notified Mr. Robinson that it was going to pay him the $5 million, but that it would not pay him the $1.2 million promised by T&B. When Mr. Robinson then received a letter from the plaintiff company, he sent the notice to Federal to show the demand made of him. Federal ended up giving Mr. Robinson $990,000 for the potential breach of contract claim against Mr. Robinson. The pertinent part of the agreement between T&B and Mr. Robinson is as follows:

“Thomas and Betts and Its Insurers agree to hold harmless, indemnify and defend Wayne Robins, et al, The Fields law Firm and Cleo Fields for any amount owed to AXA, Kaisers Subrogated Property Reinsurers, Caleb Didriksen and the Didriksen Law Firm, not to exceed 1.2 million dollars.”

Eventually, Federal sought the $990,000 from New Hampshire arguing that the amount should have been given to Mr. Robinson as part of T&B’s policy with New Hampshire. New Hampshire argued that this amount was not within T&B’s policy with it. The pertinent part of T&B’s policy with New Hampshire was that New Hampshire, “becomes legally obligated to pay by reason of liability imposed by law or assumed by [T&B] under an Insured Contract because of Bodily Injury.” This seems simple enough, however there was no definition of “legally obligated to pay.” In the world of contracts, the contracting parties have the ability to define things in any manner they see fit. These definitions should, however, be included in the contract itself in the index of terms. When a contract does not define any of the material terms, the terms should be filled in by the court. In this case, the court decided that since the phrase was not defined, it should be filled in with what was commonly used in Louisiana. It Louisiana, it was well settled that the use of the phrase was for damages arising out of tortious actions and not from a contractual obligation. Therefore, on the face of the assertion, Federal would be out of luck because it sought money from New Hampshire for money it gave Mr. Robinson due to a breach of contract. Even though the court sided with Federal for other reasons, Federal would have been dealt a strict blow because it did not read the policy between T&B and New Hampshire clearly enough to see that the term was not defined.

Therefore, before taking any action any party should clearly read any existing agreement between relevant parties and should make sure any contract it signs has clearly defined terms that will not lead to unnecessary litigation which will only serve to drain resources.

Please call the Berniard Law Firm for any help you need in your business ventures.

Contact Information