Notwithstanding the Covenant to Insure
For those keeping score, subrogating insurers have been coming up on the short end of the stick in cases involving commercial leases. The Court of Appeal’s decision in Royal Host v. 1842259 Ontario (released May 18, 2018) goes the other way in permitting an insurer of a landlord to advance a subrogated action against an at fault tenant. On that basis alone, it is worth a close look.
The lease in issue in Royal Host contained provisions we often see in commercial leases. The landlord was required to obtain fire insurance and the tenant contributed financially to the premiums for that insurance. The lease contained a provision that the tenant was not relieved of any liability arising from or contributed by its acts, fault or negligence.
The motion judge ruled in favour of the tenant and dismissed the subrogated action commenced by the landlord’s insurer, relying on what he called the ‘general rule’ in the Supreme Court of Canada’s risk shifting trilogy ( Agnew-Surpass v. Cummer-Yonge, 1975 CanLII 26 (SCC) ,  2 S.C.R. 221; (ii) Ross Southward Tire v. Pyrotech Products, 1975 CanLII 25 (SCC) , and (iii) T. Eaton Co. v. Smith et al., 1977 CanLII 39 (SCC) ) that ‘subrogation rights will be limited where a landlord covenants to pay for the insurance and agrees to look to its own insurer for any loss’. On appeal, Ontario’s Court of Appeal overturned the motion judge and permitted the matter to proceed. The appeal court relied on a number of lease provisions which in their view made it clear that the risk of loss by fire was to be borne by the tenant if they were responsible for the loss.
The Trilogy is the starting point for the analysis of commercial leases in subrogation claims in the Canadian environment and is worthy of brief review. In Surpass , the landlord covenanted to maintain fire insurance on the premises. There were no tenant repair covenants in the lease. The lease did require the tenant to take good and proper care of the leased premises, “except for reasonable wear and tear…and damage to the building caused by perils against which the lessor is obligated to insure hereunder”. The landlord’s insurer was precluded from subrogating in Surpass, and with good reason. There was a clear relationship between the tenant’s covenant to repair and the landlord’s covenant to insure. The provisions worked together harmoniously – the tenant was not required to repair if the damage was caused by a peril against which the landlord was required to insure.
In T. Eaton, the lease provisions were similar although the tenant’s covenant to repair was not tied in any way to the landlord’s covenant to insure as it had been in Surpass. Despite this distinction, the Supreme Court found in favour of the tenant and prevented the landlord’s insurer from subrogating. In effect, the covenant to insure trumped the covenant to repair.
How did the Court of Appeal reach a different result in Royal Host? The devil is in the details as they say and in this case, the details are the lease provisions. Specifically, the section of the lease that required the landlord to obtain insurance also included the following language:
Notwithstanding the Landlord’s covenant contained in this Section 7.02, and notwithstanding any contribution by the Tenant to the cost of any policies of insurance carried by the Landlord, the Tenant expressly acknowledges and agrees that
- the Tenant is not relieved of any liability arising from or contributed to by its acts, fault, negligence or omissions, and
- no insurance interest is conferred upon the Tenant, under any policies of insurance carried by the Landlord, and
- the Tenant has no right to receive any proceeds of any policies of insurance carried by the Landlord.
The effect of using the word ‘notwithstanding’ is to provide a limited circumstance in which the benefit conferred to the tenant will not apply; namely when the tenant’s ‘acts, fault, negligence or omissions’ result in loss or damage. The parties had turned their minds to the issue of which party was to bear the risk of loss in this circumstance and despite the landlord’s covenant to insure, the lease precluded the tenant from enjoying the benefit of that insurance if the loss resulted from its negligence.
It is worth noting that the motion judge in this case repeatedly referred to the ‘general rule’ derived from the Trilogy which was to limit subrogation rights when the landlord agreed to obtain insurance. The Court of Appeal disagreed with this interpretation and clarified that the Trilogy did not pronounce a general rule of application nor did it enunciate freestanding principles. Rather, ‘the principles drawn from the trilogy are contractual in nature. They are conclusions that flow from and reflect the particular provisions of the leases that were in issue in those cases’. This underscores the first rule in analyzing subrogation rights when commercial leases are involved: try to discern the intention of the parties based on the lease language. https://bit.ly/2KCPH0p