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DeWitt v. London Road Rental Center, Inc.

Supreme Court of Minnesota

April 18, 2018

Craig Dewitt, Cross-Appellant,
v.
London Road Rental Center, Inc., Respondent, Jach's, Inc., d/b/a The Tower Tap & Restaurant, et al., Appellants, Marlee Enterprise, Inc., Defendant.

         Court of Appeals Office of Appellate Courts

          Timothy P. Tobin, Brock P. Alton, Abigail A. Pettit, Gislason & Hunter, LLP, Minneapolis, Minnesota, for appellants.

          Jacob M. Tomczik, Cheryl Hood Langel, McCollum, Crowley, Moschet, Miller & Laak, Ltd., Minneapolis, Minnesota, for respondent.

         SYLLABUS

         1. For a contractual indemnity clause to obligate an indemnitor to indemnify an indemnitee for the indemnitee's own negligence, the indemnity clause must use express language that clearly and unequivocally shows the parties' intent to transfer liability to the indemnitor.

         2. A business renting tables from a rental company is not obligated to indemnify the rental company for claims related to the rental company's own negligence because the rental agreement's indemnity clause did not expressly transfer such liability to the business.

          OPINION

          CHUTICH, JUSTICE

         This appeal presents the question of whether an indemnity clause in a rental agreement requires the renter to indemnify the rental company for the rental company's own negligence. Appellants Jach's, Inc., d/b/a The Tower Tap & Restaurant, and Chester Morgan (collectively "Tower Tap") entered into an agreement to rent folding picnic tables from respondent London Road Rental Center, Inc. ("London Road") for its annual Ma and Pa Kettle Days event in 2012. Craig DeWitt, the plaintiff at trial, attended Tower Tap's event and injured his hip after one of the rented tables unexpectedly collapsed on him while he was sitting at the table. DeWitt sued Tower Tap and London Road.

         London Road filed a cross-claim against Tower Tap, invoking the indemnity clause in the rental agreement. The district court granted summary judgment to London Road, concluding that although the indemnity clause did not expressly include London Road's own negligence within its scope, the clause's broad language necessarily included coverage for London Road's negligence. The court of appeals affirmed. Because the indemnity clause did not include express language that clearly and unequivocally showed the parties' intent to transfer such liability to Tower Tap, we decline to infer such liability. Accordingly, we reverse the decision of the court of appeals and remand to the district court.

         FACTS

         In August 2012, Tower Tap hosted live music and dancing in a parking lot in Kettle River as part of the town's annual Ma and Pa Kettle Days festival. To provide seating for patrons during the festival, Tower Tap rented 10 folding picnic tables from London Road. Upon receiving the tables, Chester Morgan, an owner of Tower Tap, signed the front page of London Road's rental agreement, which referenced terms and conditions on the back page of the agreement. The terms and conditions included indemnity and exculpatory clauses. London Road requires that customers sign the rental agreement upon delivery of the rental equipment to the renter by London Road. After receiving the tables from London Road, Tower Tap set them up and patrons used them for about 2 days without mishap.

         DeWitt[1] and a group of his friends and family attended Tower Tap's event, and they sat at one of the rented picnic tables. While seated at the table, the table unexpectedly collapsed on DeWitt, pinning his hips between the tabletop and the bench seat of the table. The collapse seriously injured DeWitt, requiring him to undergo surgery to his left hip and aggravating preexisting pain and injuries. The cause of the collapse is unknown.

         DeWitt sued Tower Tap and London Road, alleging negligence and negligence based on the doctrine of res ipsa loquitur.[2] Tower Tap and London Road filed cross-claims against each other-Tower Tap sought common-law indemnity and contribution, and London Road sought contractual indemnity and common-law contribution. Tower Tap and London Road each moved for summary judgment. The district court granted London Road summary judgment on its contractual indemnity cross-claim, concluding that the terms of the rental agreement's indemnity clause required Tower Tap to defend and indemnify London Road.[3] Relying on the clause's exception for claims directly resulting from London Road's intentional misconduct, the district court concluded that the clause unequivocally covered liability for London Road's own negligence and "[t]o find otherwise would make the entire clause nonsensical." The district court dismissed Tower Tap's cross-claims against London Road. The court subsequently entered a stipulated $47, 000 judgment against Tower Tap to reimburse London Road for the reasonable costs and attorney fees that it had expended in this matter.

         Tower Tap appealed, and the court of appeals affirmed.[4]Dewitt v. London Rd. Rental Ctr., Inc., 899 N.W.2d 883, 885, 892 (Minn.App. 2017). The court of appeals substantially followed the district court's reasoning, relying on the indemnity clause's exception for London Road's intentional misconduct and explaining that the clause was "so broad" that it " 'necessarily includes claims of the indemnitor's [London Road's] negligence.' " Id. at 891-92 (alteration in original) (quoting Bogatzi v. Hoffman, 430 N.W.2d 841, 845 (Minn.App. 1988), rev. denied (Minn. Dec. 21, 1988)). The court of appeals noted that it was not inferring indemnity in violation of the holding of Farmington Plumbing & Heating Co. v. Fischer Sand & Aggregate, Inc., 281 N.W.2d 838, 842 (Minn. 1979), superseded by statute on other grounds, Minn. Stat. § 337.02 (2017). Dewitt, 899 N.W.2d at 892. Rather, ...


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