Watching Your Backside in California Cannabis: Indemnification Issues
Coming from Seattle to Los Angeles, I’ve already seen one state flip from being a “gray medical cannabis state” to a fully regulated licensing system and I understand how painful a process this can be. So much of what I saw in Washington State is now happening in California.
In California today, folks are jockeying for operational licenses on the state and local levels under MAUCRSA and “the cream” is rising to the top, just as it did in Washington. One-to-two-person shops and mom and pop operators are feeling the financial pinch of licensing costs and compliance woes. The secondary market for buying cannabis businesses is also beginning to open up as cities and counties solidify and stick with their local cannabis entitlement programs. Transactions between cannabis licensees are becoming increasingly sophisticated, from IP licensing agreements, to distribution agreements, to white labeling agreements, to purchase and sale agreements for inventory.
And just as happened in Washington State at the onset of legalization there, we are seeing many cultivators and manufacturers overpromising on what they can deliver, more often due to overconfidence as to dishonesty. In legal terms, this means we are also seeing cultivation and manufacturing licensees, and distributors agreeing to indemnify retailers and other licensees for everything under the sun, quite often to their own detriment. Even though the cannabis industry is maturing rapidly in California, many are still using boilerplate or Google-discovered or Legal Zoom and Rocket Lawyer contracts for these very serious transactions. This use of bad template documents (most of which are modified little if at all for the realities of the cannabis industry) has got to stop, or cannabis licensees will soon find themselves embroiled in costly and counter-productive disputes/litigation.
And that brings me to the crux of this post, which is one of the most important “boilerplate” contract provisions that absolutely must be tailored for a California cannabis contract: indemnification. What, exactly, is indemnification? It’s when one party (the “indemnitor”) agrees to hold harmless and compensate the other party (the “indemnitee”) for losses suffered by the indemnitee.
Many cannabis sellers in California are far too willing to indemnify third parties for things completely out of their control, like lab results, changes in regulations that may affect the other party’s operations, and unforeseen conduct by users of the cannabis product. These blanket indemnification provisions are creating liability and exposure.
In the past month or so, many cannabis companies have come to us (both in Los Angeles and in San Francisco) with poorly drafted, irrelevant or nonsensical indemnification provisions and agreements from cannabis sellers. So, what makes for a good indemnification provision in a cannabis contract?
A preliminary question should be the breadth of the indemnification. If you are the seller and you want to protect yourself, you should tailor your indemnification to what makes sense and to what you can afford. You do not want something like the following (which is being used fairly often in California these days by inexperienced lawyers and lawyerless companies):
“The Indemnitor agrees to indemnify, defend, and hold harmless the Indemnitee, its officers, directors, employees, owners, agents, assigns, and affiliates (collectively, the “Indemnified Parties”) from and against any and all claims, liability, loss, expenses, suits, damages, judgments, demands, and costs(including reasonable attorneys’ fees and expenses) (each a “Claim”) arising out of any accident, injury, or death to persons, or loss of or damage to property, or fines and penalties which may result, in whole or in part, by reason of the use or sale of any Product, or its packaging, except to the extent that such damage is due solely and directly to the gross negligence or willful misconduct of the Indemnified Parties and that the Indemnified Parties, or any of them, were acting in bad faith.”
This sort of provision is a bad idea for any cannabis seller. It means that seller will be liable to the buyer for just about anything that could go wrong–anywhere, for anyone–from the product. No one wants to be on the hook for things they cannot control.
Here are a few important things to consider when crafting a cannabis indemnification term:
- Both the cannabis seller and buyer need to focus on what kinds of losses will or will not be covered by indemnification. If I’m the seller, I’m going to want to exclude incidental, punitive, and indirect damages even if foreseeable. If I’m the cannabis buyer, I’m going to want to include at least incidental damages and foreseeable indirect damages.
- It is both unusual and risky for a seller to agree to indemnify a party indefinitely, and yet this too has become common in California. If you are the seller, make sure your indemnity agreement or provision has an end date.
- Your indemnification agreement or provision should include a protocol for making indemnification claims to the indemnifying party. The boilerplate indemnification provisions and agreements we are seeing typically never even mention any claim deadline or claim notice requirements. As the cannabis seller you should, at minimum, address these two issues in your indemnification provision or agreement.
- If the indemnification is mutual, and captures reciprocal indemnification obligations in the same paragraph or contract section, ask yourself “why?” Putting the same parameters around indemnification for both parties often makes no sense, because each party has a different role in the business relationship. Consider separating the indemnity obligations and applying tailored language for each party, as appropriate for that party’s role in the transaction.
- Finally, can you just cross it out? If you have deal leverage, and someone presents you with an indemnification provision (particularly an onerous one), you may be able to get rid of it altogether. Sometimes, you can convince the other party to give you everything they need to feel comfortable through appropriate representations and warranties.
There are certainly very good and reliable stock indemnification provisions in most contracts, and there’s a reason for that boilerplate in that it’s time-tested and mostly appropriate for more standard business agreements. However, be sure that whatever you’re putting into your cannabis contracts on indemnification is tailored to your specific situation. If not, you could find yourself holding the bag on way more than what is fair — let alone what you expected or can afford.