THERE ARE TIMES AN EQUITABLE SUBROGATION CLAIM IS THE MOST PRACTICAL RECOURSE FOR REIMBURSEMENT

shutterstock_627721505Equitable subrogation is a claim that can be pursued when a party (referred to as the subrogee) pays for damages to protect its interest–perhaps to mitigate its own exposure–seeks reimbursement from another party primarily liable for the damages.  There are times a party seeking reimbursement for purely economic losses is best able to pursue an equitable subrogation claim, as opposed to a common law indemnification or negligence claim.

 

Equitable subrogation is generally appropriate where: (1) the subrogee made the payment to protect [its] own interest, (2) the subrogee did not act as a volunteer, (3) the subrogee was not primarily liable for the debt, (4) the subrogee paid off the entire debt, and (5) subrogation would not work any injustice to the rights of a third party.

Tank Tech, Inc. v. Valley Tank Testing, L.L.C., 43 Fla.L.Weekly D868a (Fla. 2d DCA 2018) quoting Dade Cty. Sch. Bd. v. Radio Station WQBA, 731 So.2d 638, 646 (Fla. 1999).

 

Equitable subrogation is not dependent on a contract—it is simply an “equitable remedy for restitution to one [the subrogee] who in the performance of some duty has discharged a legal obligation which should have been met, either wholly or partially, by another.”  Tank Tech, Inc., supra, quoting W. Am. Ins. Co. v. Yellow Cab Co. of Orlando, Inc., 495 So.2d 204, 206 (Fla. 5th DCA 1986).

 

As shown in the recent decision below, there are times an equitable subrogation claim will generate more traction for purposes of a reimbursement claim than a negligence claim or common law indemnification claim, because an equitable subrogation claim does not require the party seeking reimbursement to show a duty is owed to it by the party it is seeking reimbursement from.

  

The recent decision of Tank Tech, Inc. involved damage to underground petroleum storage tanks at Circle K locations.  Company “A,” the subrogee, had been hired by Circle K to retrofit existing tanks by adding an interior wall inside of the tanks.  Company “B” was separately hired by Circle K to test the interstitial space between the new interior wall installed by Company “A” and the existing tank wall.  There was no contractual relationship between Company “A” and Company “B.”

 

After the tanks were retrofitted, Circle K notified Company “A” that the modified tanks were damaged and failing.  Although Company’s “A” investigation revealed the failure was the result of Company’s “B’s” testing methodology, Company “A” nevertheless repaired the damage to the tanks because its contract with Circle K required it to do so regardless of whether the damage was caused by a third party, such as Company “B.”

 

Company “A” then sued Company “B” for reimbursement of its repair costs under various claims, one of which was equitable subrogation.  Each party had expert opinions that pointed to the other for the cause of the tanks’ failure and damage.  The trial court granted a motion for summary judgment in favor of Company “B” finding that equitable subrogation did not apply.  This summary judgment was reversed on appeal as the Second District maintained that there were factual issues supporting the basis of the equitable subrogation claim:

 

Tank Tech’s [Company “A”] contract with Circle K obligated it to repair damages to the USTs [tanks]. But Tank Tech’s contractual obligation to Circle K did not convert Tank Tech into a “volunteer” to pay for damages caused by a third party and thus did not prevent the application of the equitable subrogation doctrine. Instead, Tank Tech was merely fulfilling its legal obligation to Circle K which was a necessary means of protecting itself from liability to Circle K. And Tank Tech, by virtue of Dr. Cignatta’s affidavit [expert opinion establishing Company “B” caused failure to tanks], established a genuine issue of material fact regarding whether Tank Tech or Valley Tank [Company “B”] was primarily liable for the damages. If Tank Tech is ultimately successful in proving that Valley Tank caused the damage to the USTs, then it would be entitled to seek any damages it incurred as a result of having to repair the damaged USTs.  To hold that Tank Tech is precluded from pursuing a claim for subrogation would leave Tank Tech without a remedy, a “most unfair and inequitable result.” 

Tank Tech, Inc., supra (internal citations omitted).

 

Negligence and Common Law Indemnification

 

Relatedly, Company “A” also sued Company “B” for negligence and common law indemnification for repairing tanks it claimed were caused by Company “B’s” testing methodology.  The trial court also granted summary judgment in favor of Company “B” on these claims.  Unlike the equitable subrogation claim, the Second District affirmed the summary judgment in favor of Company “B” on these claims. 

 

For Company “A” to sustain a negligence claim, it would have to establish that Company “B” owed it a duty.  Without a duty owed, there is no negligence claim.  Whether there is a duty is a question of law for the court.   In this case, when dealing with only economic losses, the relationship between the parties—Company “A” and Company “B”—needs to be examined to determine whether a special relationship exists to warrant creating a duty to protect the economic interests of another.  “[I]n order to proceed on a common law negligence claim based solely on economic loss, there must be some sort of link between the parties or some other extraordinary circumstance that justifies recognition of such a claim.”  Tank Tech, Inc., supra.   Here, the Second District agreed that Company “B” did not owe Company “A” a duty to support a negligence claim:

 

The reason why the negligence claim fails here is because there is neither a special relationship between Valley Tank [Company “B”] and Tank Tech [Company “A”] nor any extraordinary circumstance that would require imposition of a duty. Tank Tech’s injury did not flow from Valley Tank’s testing of the USTs [tanks]. Instead, Tank Tech seeks to recover the money it spent in repairing the USTs, an expense that was the result of a negotiated contract between Tank Tech and Circle K. There was no contract between Valley Tank and Tank Tech obligating Valley Tank to repair any USTs it damaged during testing or otherwise obligating Valley Tank to repay Tank Tech for the expenses incurred pursuant to Tank Tech’s contract with Circle K. And Valley Tank’s testing did not cause any personal injury or property damage to Tank Tech, the types of injuries for which the common law of negligence has historically permitted recovery.

***

This is simply a case of a party attempting to bring a tort claim to recover monies that it spent as a result of a contractual obligation to a third party. But negligence claims cannot proceed based on a party’s desire to relieve itself from a bad bargain.

Tank Tech, Inc., supra.

 

 

Likewise, regarding the common law indemnification claim, “actions for indemnity have been restricted to situations involving either a duty, an express contract, or the existence of active and passive negligence.”  Tank Tech, Inc., supra, quoting Hiller Grp., Inc. v. Redwing Carriers, Inc., 779 So.2d 602, 603 (Fla. 2d DCA 2001).  Since the Second District already agreed there was no special relationship between Company “A” and Company “B” and, thus, no duty owed, the common law indemnification claim failed for the same reasons as the negligence claim.

 

Please contact David Adelstein at dadelstein@gmail.com or (954) 361-4720 if you have questions or would like more information regarding this article. You can follow David Adelstein on Twitter @DavidAdelstein1.

SUING A PUBLIC ENTITY FOR NEGLIGENT MISREPRESENTATION …NOT SO FAST

 

shutterstock_111122411Suing a public entity for negligent misrepresentation…let’s just say, is not that easy.  Not that easy at all!  Putting aside the doctrine of sovereign immunity (the doctrine that the king can do no wrong), a public entity does not have an affirmative duty to necessarily convey accurate information, no matter how fair or unfair this may sound.  And, a negligence claim fails without the defendant (in this case, public entity) owing the plaintiff a duty of care.  

 

For example, in City of Dunedin v. Pirate’s Treasure, Inc., 43 Fla. L. Weekly D783a (Fla. 2d DCA 2018), a commercial owner wanted to renovate its property to accommodate a refurbished marina and a new restaurant.  The owner met with the city to review its preliminary conceptual site plan.  Based on this meeting, the owner prepared a costly site plan to comply with the City’s development code for the restaurant and marina.  The City’s engineering department approved the site plan.  However, the City then informed the owner that it had concerns with the restaurant’s square footage and parking.  The owner and City agreed that the site plan for the marina and restaurant would be separated, as the owner did not want to ruffle any feathers.  The City then approved the separate site plan for the marina but told the owner that the site plan approval for the restaurant was terminated as the owner needed to submit a brand-new application and comply with the updated development code. The owner filed suit against the City claiming, among other things, the City made misrepresentations about the site plan approval only to engage in a bait-and-switch tactic where the misrepresentations were made to induce the development of the marina, without the accompanying restaurant. 

 

The City moved to dismiss the negligent misrepresentation claim on sovereign immunity grounds.  The trial court denied the City’s motion finding as a matter of law the City was not entitled to sovereign immunity and the City appealed. 

 

Interestingly, the appellate court rejected the City’s sovereign immunity argument but still reversed the trial court’s holding that the City is not liable to the owner for negligent misrepresentation.  The court based its reversal on its determination that the City did now owe the owner a duty of care, hence the negligent misrepresentation claim failed as a matter of law. 

 

A duty of care analysis is different from the analysis whether the City is sovereignly immune from the suit. If there is no duty owed, there is no reason to delve into whether sovereign immunity applies.   Here, the Court found no duty was owed because the City “does not owe a duty to convey accurate information concerning whether Pirate’s Treasure’s [owner] site plan complied with the City’s development code.”  City of Dunedin, supra.

 

The owner in this case could have been 100% correct.  It had assurances from the City and acted on those assurances in devoting the money and time in finalizing its site plan based on the current development code.  It then submitted separate plans at the behest of the City (to appease the City) only for the City to approve the marina (the project it wanted) while terminating the site plan for the restaurant (the project it really did not want).  But, assuming this is all true, it does not matter because the court found that the City never owed an affirmative duty to the owner to convey accurate information, i.e., in this case, whether the owner’s site plan complied with the development code. 

 

Please contact David Adelstein at dadelstein@gmail.com or (954) 361-4720 if you have questions or would like more information regarding this article. You can follow David Adelstein on Twitter @DavidAdelstein1.

 

REPAIRING ONE’S OWN WORK AND THE ONE YEAR STATUTE OF LIMITATIONS TO SUE A MILLER ACT PAYMENT BOND

shutterstock_516982177When it comes to Miller Act payment bond claims, repairing one’s own work does NOT extend the one year statute of limitations to file suit on a Miler Act payment bondBelonger Corp., Inc. v. BW Contracting Services, Inc., 2018 WL 704379, *3 (E.D. Wisconsin 2018) (“The courts that have considered this question tend to agree that, once a subcontractor completes its work under the subcontract, repairs or corrections to that work do not fall within the meaning of ‘labor’ or ‘materials’ and, as such, do not extend the Miller Act’s one-year statute of limitations.”).

 

Well, what if the subcontractor was repairing its own work due to an issue caused by another subcontractor? 

 

This was the situation in Belonger Corp. where a plumber was asked to unclog a plumbing line that had concrete in the line (caused by another subcontractor)  months after the plumber had completed its contractual scope of work.  Before the subcontractor did this work, it smartly sent an e-mail stating that it needs an e-mail acknowledgement that this additional work is authorized and a change order will be forthcoming.  The contractor responded, “Yes, please proceed with repair work on a T&M [time and materials] basis….”   Sure enough, the subcontractor unclogged the line and a change order was never issued.

 

The subcontractor filed a Miller Act payment bond claim for unpaid contract work plus change order work, such as unclogging the line.  The subcontractor based its last day for purposes of the statute of limitations on the work associated with unclogging the line and not on the day it completed its contractual scope of work.  If it was determined that the subcontractor’s last day / final furnishing date was when it fully completed its contractual scope of work, its Miller Act payment bond lawsuit would be untimely / barred by the one year statute of limitations to sue on a Miller Act payment bond.  

 

The issue was whether the subcontractor’s remedial work to its own plumbing line extended its final furnishing date.  The trial court found this to be a question of fact because this arguably was change order work that amended the subcontract to include this additional work.  The fact that the subcontractor sent an e-mail before doing this work and the fact that the contractor responded helped the subcontractor create a question of fact that its payment bond claim was not untimely because unclogging its own plumbing line due to an issue caused by another trade subcontractor was additional subcontractual work that extended its final furnishing date.

 

If you are in this situation, the best bet is not to bank on this type of argument.  File your Miller Act payment bond claim within one-year of finishing your contractual work.  With that said, if you don’t, the argument raised by the subcontractor here that repairing its own work due to an issue caused by another subcontractor was additional work that modified the terms of the subcontract and extended its final furnishing date is a creative argument helped by the e-mail this subcontractor smartly sent.

 

For more information on the Miller Act, check out this ebook.

 

Please contact David Adelstein at dadelstein@gmail.com or (954) 361-4720 if you have questions or would like more information regarding this article. You can follow David Adelstein on Twitter @DavidAdelstein1.

COMPETING EXPERT WITNESSES IN AN INSURANCE COVERAGE DISPUTE

shutterstock_363608708Oftentimes, insurance coverage disputes involve competing expert witnesses.  The experts render different expert opinions regarding a topic that goes to coverage and/or damages.  An example of competing expert witnesses can be found in the recent property insurance coverage dispute, Garcia v. First Community Ins. Co., 43 Fla.L.Weekly D671a (Fla. 3d DCA 2018). 

 

In this case, an insured submitted a claim under her homeowner’s policy for water damage due to a roof leak.  She claimed her damage was approximately $23,000.  The insurer denied coverage and an insurance coverage dispute ensued.

 

The insured’s policy, akin to many homeowner’s policies, contained exclusions for loss caused by:

 

h. Rain, snow, sleet, sand or dust to the interior of a building unless a covered peril first damages the building causing an opening in a roof or wall and the rain, snow, sleet, sand or dust enters through this opening.

 ***

i. (1) Wear and tear, marring, deterioration;

 

The insurer sent an engineer to inspect the insured’s property and the engineer (expert) opined that the water intrusion was not covered under the policy based on the aforementioned exclusions.  Her opinion was that the water intrusion through the roof was the result of deterioration from age, tree branch abrasions, and construction defects based on how nails were installed into the shingles.  Based on this opinion, the insurer was denying coverage based on the (i) wear and tear, marring and deterioration exclusion and (ii) rain intruded through the roof based on a peril (construction defect) that was not covered under the policy.

 

The insured, as expected, had a competing expert that opined that a hail impact or high wind uplift (covered peril) in the days leading up to the rain event caused water to intrude through the roof and cause interior damage.   Under this opinion, the insured was presenting an expert opinion for coverage and why the insurer’s exclusions were inapplicable.

 

In this case, surprisingly, the trial court granted summary judgment in favor of the insurer.  However, this was reversed on appeal because the competing opinions as to coverage and the cause of the insured’s loss created a genuine issue of material fact.  Summary judgment cannot be granted if there are genuine issues of material fact.  See Garcia, supra, (“Given this conflict in the material evidence as to the cause of the loss, the trial court erred in entering final judgment in favor of First Community [insurer].”).

 

Another argument the insurer raised was that its engineer inspected the property within months after the date of loss whereas the insured’s expert is basing an opinion on an inspection that occurred three years after the fact.   This fact, albeit true, does not create a genuine issue of material fact.  Rather, it goes to the credibility of the experts at trial.  Which expert is more credible regarding the cause of the loss:  the insurer’s expert that inspected the property a few months after the loss or the insured’s expert that inspected the property years after the loss.  Well, the issue of credibility and how a jury / trier of fact weighs this in consideration of other evidence is not appropriate in determining a motion for summary judgment. See Garcia, supra.

 

Experts are an important part of construction disputes including insurance coverage disputes and it is not uncommon for there to be competing expert opinions as to the cause of a loss, a defect, and, of course, damages.   

 

Please contact David Adelstein at dadelstein@gmail.com or (954) 361-4720 if you have questions or would like more information regarding this article. You can follow David Adelstein on Twitter @DavidAdelstein1.