SLAVIN DOCTRINE AND DEFENSE FROM PATENT DEFECTS

shutterstock_1094947985The Slavin doctrine is an affirmative defense primarily geared to the personal injury context designed to protect contractors from third-party negligence-type claims when an owner accepts a patent defect.  

 

The Slavin doctrine protects contractors from liability for injuries to third parties by presuming that the owner has made a “reasonably careful inspection” of the contractor’s work prior to accepting it as completed; if the owner accepts the contractor’s work as complete and an alleged defect is patent, then the owner “accepts the defects and the negligence that caused them as his own,” and the contractor will no longer be liable for the patent defect.

 

“[T]he test for patency is not whether or not the condition was obvious to the owner, but whether or not the dangerousness of the condition was obvious had the owner exercised reasonable care.” While in most cases, the patency or latency of a dangerous condition is a question of fact for the jury, thereby precluding summary judgment, there are exceptions where the undisputed material facts establish that if there was a defect, then that defect would have been patent.

Valiente v. R.J. Behar & Company, Inc., 2018 WL 2708712, *2 (Fla. 3d DCA 2018) (internal quotations omitted).

 

Valiente is a recent decision where the trial court, as affirmed by the appellate court, ruled in favor of contractors (and an engineer) as to the applicability of the Slavin doctrine in a wrongful death action.  In this case, the decedent was killed in 2008 when his motorcycle ran into another vehicle at an intersection.  The estate claimed that the shrubs in the swale create a dangerous condition by blocking the view of motorists and causing the accident.  The shrubs were planted in 2005 as part of a city’s roadway project.   The estate sued the city, the designer, the general contractor, and the nursery hired by the city to provide the landscaping for the roadway project.

 

The designer, contractor, and nursery moved for summary judgment on their Slavin doctrine affirmative defense.  They all claimed they should be relieved of liability for the accident (and, thus, the death) because the work was long completed, the City accepted the work, and the alleged defect dealing with the shrubs blocking passing motorist’s views was patent.  The evidence revealed that when the shrubs were originally planted they were 2 feet taller than the maximum height required.  

 

For purposes of patency under the Slavin doctrine, the relevant question is: if the plantings [shubs] created a visual obstruction (the alleged dangerous condition), was that dangerous condition latent or patent? And, to reiterate, the test for patency, is not what the City knew, but rather, what the City could have discovered [the dangerous condition] had the City performed a reasonably careful inspection.  

Valiente, 2018 WL at *2.

 

Here, because the it was ruled that the city accepted a patent defect, the Court granted summary judgment in favor of the defendants on their Slavin doctrine defense.  

 

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.

SETTLING WITH SOME, BUT NOT ALL, OF THE DEFENDANTS IN A CONSTRUCTION DEFECT CASE

shutterstock_510239200Construction defect lawsuits can be complex multi-party disputes, especially when the plaintiff is doing what is necessary to maximize recovery.  This means the plaintiff may sue multiple defendants associated with the defects and damage.  For example, the owner (e.g., plaintiff) may sue the contractor, subcontractors, design professionals, etc. due to the magnitude of the damages.  In many instances, the plaintiff is suing multiple defendants for overlapping damages.  The law prohibits a plaintiff from double-recovering for the same damages prohibiting the windfall of a plaintiff recovering twice for the same damages.  Perhaps this sentiment is straight common sense, but this sentiment is a very important consideration when it comes to settling with one or more of the defendants, while potentially trying the construction defect case as to remaining defendants.  Analysis and strategy is involved when settling with some but not all of the defendants in a construction defect case (and, really, for any type of case).  Time must be devoted to crafting specific language in the settlement agreements to deal with this issue. Otherwise, the settlement(s) could be set-off from the damage awarded against the remaining defendants.

 

The recent decision in Addison Construction Corp. v. Vecellio, 43 Fla.L.Weekly D625(a) (Fla. 4th DCA 2018) details the analysis and strategy required when settling with some but not all of the defendants in a construction defect case, and the concern associated with a trial court setting-off the settlement amount from the damage awarded against the remaining defendants.   

 

This dispute involved the sale of a high-end residential home where the buyer of the home sued numerous parties due to construction defects—the sellers, the developer, the general contractor, and subcontractors.   Before trial, the buyer settled the dispute with certain subcontractors for a sum total of $2,725,000.  The buyer then proceeded to trial with remaining defendants.  Prior to trial, the buyer filed a motion in limine to exclude the remaining defendants from mentioning these subcontractor settlements.  The trial court granted the motion.  After trial, the plaintiff was awarded approximately $3.5 Million in damages associated with the construction defects.  However, smartly, remaining defendants moved the trial court to set-off the sum total of the subcontractor settlements from the approximate $3.5 Million to reduce the overall principal judgment amount.  The trial court granted the motion in most respects reducing the judgment amount finding that that the settlements covered the same damage.  Remember, a party cannot recover double damages for the same issue.

 

An appellate issue dealt with this set-off of the subcontractor settlements from the total judgment awarded against the remaining defendants.  This is a critical strategic  legal issue, not to be taken loosely, when settling with defendants in a multi-party construction defect dispute, particularly when you may try the case against non-settling defendants. 

  

The purpose of the setoff statutes is to prevent a windfall to a plaintiff by way of double recovery. Thus, any “settlement recovery sought to be set off must be ‘in partial satisfaction for the damages sued for.’ ”  Accordingly, “[i]f the settlement funds are applicable to a claim asserted only against the settling co-defendant, the non-settling co-defendants are not eligible for a set-off in the amount of the settlement.”  In the same vein, “[w]hen a settlement recovery is allocated between claims with different and distinctive damage elements, set-off should only be allowed to co-defendants jointly and severally liable for the same claims.” 

***

Although the same-damages-sued-for prerequisite seems simple enough in theory, because settlement agreements are often so broadly worded, in practice it is not always easy to determine whether damages paid as part of a settlement overlap with damages awarded against a remaining co-defendant. To that end, the law provides that if settlement proceeds are “not apportioned between (a) claims for which co-defendants are jointly and severally liable with the settling co-defendant, and (b) claims which were only asserted against the settling co-defendant, the entire amount of the undifferentiated recovery is allowable as a set-off.”  This is the case even where some of the settlement amount may have been for different damages and the settlement amount exceeded the damages it setoff. 

Addison Construction Corp., supra, (internal citations omitted).

 

 

Clearly, while this law seems simple, it is not.  And it certainly is not in a multi-party construction defect case which is why—again—settling with some but not all defendants in a construction defect case requires analysis and strategy. Otherwise, what could happen is a trial court setting-off the total sum of the settlements from the principal damages awarded at trial.  Probably not what the plaintiff had in mind! This is what the trial court did in this case based on otherwise broad language in the respective settlement agreements.  Guess what?  The appellate court agreed:

 

In sum, because the subcontractor settlement agreements failed to differentiate the damages settled for, it is simply “impossible to know whether [Buyers] would be receiving a duplicate payment” for their breach of contract based claims. If Buyers wanted to prevent this problem, they should have allocated the damages encompassed in each subcontractor settlement. Buyers made a strategic and understandable decision not to do so, and this is the end result. We acknowledge that this may seem harsh, but it is the only pragmatic result. If courts were required to delve into the scope of undifferentiated settlement agreements for the purposes of making a setoff determination, then post-judgment proceedings would turn into a second trial. Principles of judicial economy prohibit this result.

Addison Construction Corp., supra, (internal citations omitted).

 

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.

THE RELEVANCE AND REASONABLENESS OF DESTRUCTIVE TESTING

shutterstock_617053133Destructive testing is a routine investigatory procedure in construction defect disputes.   The destructive testing is necessary to determine liability (causation), the extent of damage, and the repair protocol.   Destructive testing is designed to answer numerous questions:  Why did the building component fail?  Was the building component constructed incorrectly?  What is the magnitude of the damage caused by the failure? What specifically caused the damage?  What is the most effective way to fix the failure and damage?  There are different iterations to the same questions, but in many instances, destructive testing is necessary to answer these questions.

 

Claimants sometimes prohibit destructive testing.  Of course, destructive testing is intrusive.  In many instances, it is very intrusive.  But, this testing is a necessary evil.  Without this testing, how can a defendant truly analyze their potential exposure and culpability?  They need to be in a position to prepare a defense and figure out their liability.  This does not mean destructive testing is warranted in every single construction defect dispute.  That is not the case.   However, to say it is never warranted is irrational. 

 

Florida Statutes Chapter 558 (the pre-suit notice of construction defects process) addresses the issue of destructive testing when parties are participating in this obligatory pre-suit notice of construction defect process:

 

(a) If the person served with notice under subsection (1) determines that destructive testing is necessary to determine the nature and cause of the alleged defects, such person shall notify the claimant in writing.

(b) The notice shall describe the destructive testing to be performed, the person selected to do the testing, the estimated anticipated damage and repairs to or restoration of the property resulting from the testing, the estimated amount of time necessary for the testing and to complete the repairs or restoration, and the financial responsibility offered for covering the costs of repairs or restoration.

(c) If the claimant promptly objects to the person selected to perform the destructive testing, the person served with notice under subsection (1) shall provide the claimant with a list of three qualified persons from which the claimant may select one such person to perform the testing. The person selected to perform the testing shall operate as an agent or subcontractor of the person served with notice under subsection (1) and shall communicate with, submit any reports to, and be solely responsible to the person served with notice.

(d) The testing shall be done at a mutually agreeable time.

(e) The claimant or a representative of the claimant may be present to observe the destructive testing.

(f) The destructive testing shall not render the property uninhabitable.

(g) There shall be no construction lien rights under part I of chapter 713 for the destructive testing caused by a person served with notice under subsection (1) or for restoring the area destructively tested to the condition existing prior to testing, except to the extent the owner contracts for the destructive testing or restoration.

If the claimant refuses to agree and thereafter permit reasonable destructive testing, the claimant shall have no claim for damages which could have been avoided or mitigated had destructive testing been allowed when requested and had a feasible remedy been promptly implemented.

Florida Statute s. 558.004(2).

 

Under this pre-suit process, if a claimant refuses to permit reasonable destructive testing, the claimant shall have no claim for damages which could have been mitigated or avoided had destructive testing been allowed and had a feasible remedy been promptly implemented.  In my opinion, this has very little teeth as it raises too many factual issues such as 1) was the destructive testing reasonable, 2) what damages could have realistically been mitigated and how do you prove this, 3) what is a feasible remedy and how is one to know whether the defendant would have even proposed or implemented a feasible remedy, 4) is the feasible remedy a remedy that mitigates future damage or fully addresses the root of the problem, and 5) what is the quantum of damages that could have been mitigated or avoided.   Establishing the reasonableness of the destructive testing is likely easy as an expert would support this.  But the same expert would have to establish the other requirements as a basis to establish an affirmative defense that some of the claimed damages the plaintiff is seeking could have been mitigated had the claimant allowed pre-suit destructive testing.

 

Oftentimes, however, a defendant wants to undertake certain destructive testing after a lawsuit has been initiated.  What happens if the plaintiff refuses such testing in this scenario?  In a recent products liability case, Westerbeke Corp. v. Atherton, 42 Fla.L.Weekly D1741c (Fla. 2d DCA 2017), a defendant wanted to perform destructive testing on a gas generator that caused an explosion on a boat.  The plaintiff did not want this testing to be performed.   In support of the testing, the defendant relied on a federal district case that applied four factors to consider whether the destructive testing is warranted:

 

1) Whether the proposed testing is reasonable, necessary, and relevant to proving the movant’s case; 2) Whether the non-movant’s ability to present evidence at trial will be hindered, or whether the non-movant will be prejudiced in some other way; 3) Whether there are any less prejudicial alternative methods of obtaining the evidence sought; and 4) Whether there are adequate safeguards to minimize prejudice to the non-movant, particularly the non-movant’s ability to present evidence at trial.

 

 Westerbke Corp., supra, quoting Mirchandani v. Home Depot, U.S.A., Inc., 235 F.R.D. 611, 614 (D.Md. 2006).

 

The trial court did not apply these four factors and denied the defendant’s request to perform destructive testing on the gas generator.  On appeal (through a petition for writ of certiorari), the appellate court reversed.  Unfortunately, the appellate court punted without providing specific guidance as to what standard the trial should follow when granting or denying a request for destructive testing.  The appellate court simply held that the four factors above may provide guidance to the trial court, but are not controlling in Florida.  The appellate court further summarily pointed to the Florida’s Rules of Civil Procedure to address the issue:

 

The Florida law regarding discovery in general provides that a party in a civil case is entitled to discover evidence that is relevant to the subject matter of the case and that is admissible or reasonably calculated to lead to admissible evidence. Fla. R. Civ. P. 1.280(b)(1); Allstate Ins. Co. v. Langston, 655 So. 2d 91, 94 (Fla. 1995). In addition, “[a]ny party may request any other party . . . to inspect and copy, test, or sample any tangible things that constitute or contain matters within the scope of rule 1.280(b) and that are in the possession, custody, or control of the party to whom the request is directed.” Fla. R. Civ. P. 1.350(a)(2). “The discovery rules . . . confer broad discretion on the trial court to limit or prohibit discovery in order to ‘protect a party or person from annoyance, embarrassment, oppression, or undue burden or expense.‘ ” Rasmussen v. S. Fla. Blood Serv., Inc., 500 So. 2d 533, 535 (Fla. 1987) (citing Fla. R. Civ. P. 1.280(c)). We conclude that the trial court departed from the essential requirements of the law in failing to apply the proper discovery standard…..

 

 

The four factors outlined above are reasonable factors that comport with Florida law – whether the testing is relevant to the subject matter of the case. The factors provide guidance as to how to determine relevancy of destructive testing during the course of a lawsuit.  Plus, the court can always impose limitations or restrictions to reduce any intrusion and protect the claimant’s interests while allowing testing to be performed.   By the appellate court punting and not even ruling on whether the destructive testing would be relevant in the underlying action, the court is simply inviting another appeal.

 

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.

 

 

SUBCONTRACTOR’S LIABILITY INSURER’S DUTY TO DEFEND THE “ADDITIONAL INSURED” GENERAL CONTRACTOR

shutterstock_306317915Construction projects can lead to insurance coverage disputes.  One such dispute arises when a general contractor is sued for construction defects and resulting property damage and it tenders the defense of the claim / lawsuit to an implicated subcontractor’s liability insurer.  A general contractor does this because it (hopefully) will be an additional insured under the subcontractor’s liability policy.  Being identified as an additional insured under a subcontractor’s liability policy is imperative for a general contractor as part of its normal risk assessment. The issue will typically come up in any construction defect lawsuit because if the general contractor is an additional insured it will, and should, tender the defense of the lawsuit to implicated subcontractors’ insurers. 

 

Sometimes, a subcontractor’s liability insurer will deny the duty to defend the general contractor.  Yes, this happens.  When it does, the general contractor’s insurer will provide a defense to the general contractor but may pursue the subcontractor’s insurer for reimbursement of fees and costs based on the general contractor being an additional insured under the subcontractor’s liability policy.

 

For example, in Travelers Property Casualty Co. of America v. Amerisure Ins. Co., 161 F.Supp.3d 113 (N.D.Fla. 2015), the general contractor’s liability insurer (Travelers) sued a stucco subcontractor’s liability insurer (Amerisure) where the underlying issue was whether the general contractor was an additional insured under the subcontractor’s liability policy.  The subcontractor’s insurer refused to defend the general contractor in an underlying construction defect lawsuit.  The general contractor’s insurer provided a defense in the underlying lawsuit and sued the subcontractor’s insurer for reimbursement.  

 

Under Florida law, a liability insurer’s duty to defend extends to an entire lawsuit if any claim in the lawsuit may come within the policy’s coverage.”  Travelers Property Casualty Co., 161 F.Supp.3d at 1137.    The underlying complaint against the general contractor alleged property damage caused by defective stucco installation.  This meant that the complaint triggered the duty to defend and the Court held the general contractor was an additional insured under the subcontractor’s liability policy.  For this reason, the Court maintained that the subcontractor’s insurer (Amerisure) owed the general contractor’s insurer (Travelers) the reasonable attorney’s fees incurred in the defense of the general contractor in the underlying lawsuit:

 

When Amerisure [subcontractors’ insurer] failed to step up, Travelers [general contractor’s insurer] did what Amerisure should have done: Travelers provided Yates [general contractor] a defense. The attorneys Travelers hired chose to defend the case not only by answering the claims but also by asserting third-party claims against subcontractors, including Jemco [stucco subcontractor]. Travelers paid the fees and costs incurred in connection with the third-party claims, apparently concluding that this was the best strategy for defending the claims and that its duty to defend Yates thus obligated it to pay for the third-party claims as well. There is support for that view. 

***

Had Amerisure provided a defense as it should have done, the attorneys it hired might or might not have made the  same strategic decision as the attorneys hired by Travelers. But now Amerisure can complain, at most, about unreasonable decisions, not about decisions that reasonably could have gone either way. As a leading commentator has put it, when an insurer breaches its duty to defend,

the insured is justified in assuming the defense of the action and is released from the contractual obligation to leave the management of the case to the insurer. Not only does the insurer lose the power to control the defense or dictate to the insured how the case should be handled, but the insurer cannot complain about the conduct of the defense by the insured or the negligent handling of the case by the insured’s attorney.

 

Travelers Property Casualty Co. of America, 161 F.Supp.3d at 1138-39 (internal citations omitted).

 

 

 

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.