CONTRACTOR WALKS OFF JOB. WHAT ARE THE OWNER’S DAMAGES?

shutterstock_1059607865What are your damages as the result of a breach of the construction contract?  This is an important question, right?  It is probably the most important part of your case.  If you didn’t have damages, you wouldn’t be in a dispute. So, I repeat, what are your damages as the result of a breach of the construction contract? The below case explains dealing with a contractor that elected to walk off the job mid-construction.

 

In Forbes v. Prime General Contractors, Inc., 43 Fla.L.Weekly D20194a (Fla. 2d DCA 2018), owners hired a contractor to perform a residential renovation job for $276,000.  The owners were to pay the contractor in five draw payments (common for residential jobs) where the third draw payment was due upon the contractor’s completion of the dry-in (as defined in the contract).  After the contractor received the first two draw payments totaling $138,000 plus an additional $6,000 for updated architectural plans, the contractor claimed the job doubled in price and demanded that the owners pay the contractor the third draw payment immediately (before it was due) plus an additional $31,450.  The contractor refused to continue unless the owners agreed to its terms, and then walked off the job when the owners would not agree to these terms (nor should the owners agree to those terms).  At the time the contractor walked off the job, the owners’ home was not habitable due to the construction.

 

The owners sued the contractor for breach of the construction contract and had two damages methodologies they could employ:

 

 

(1) they could deem the contract a total breach, treat the contract as void, suspend their own performance under the contract, and look to be placed in the position they would have been in prior to entering the contract (i.e., had they not hired the contractor); or

(2) they could seek the damages that would place them in the position had the contractor completed the contract.  This damages methodology is more common and would result in the owners seeking the difference between the total amount to complete the contract and the amount owed under the original contract.  For example, if the owners were all in at $376,000 to complete the contract, the contractor would be liable for $100,000, since the owners were always planning on the original contract amount of $276,000. 

 

In this case, however, the owners chose the less common first damages methodology.  The reason being is that the owners could not find another contractor that was reasonably willing to complete the contract.  Also, because the home was uninhabitable, the owners were forced to buy another house versus indefinitely renting.  This resulted in the owners losing the uninhabitable house to foreclosure and their $45,000 equity in the house.  Accordingly, the owners, seeking to be put in the position had they never hired the contractor, sought to recover, among other damages (i) the first two draw payments totaling $138,000 plus the additional $6,000 for updated architectural drawings, (ii) $5,600 in rent, and (iii) $45,000 in lost equity.  These were permissible recoverable damages under the first damages methodology: 

 

They [owners] sought to be put in the position they would have occupied had they never contracted with Prime [contractor]. It was clear at trial that the Forbeses [owners] regarded the breach as total; indeed, they were explicit that they were entitled to suspend their own performance under the contract. And the damages they asked the court to award — return of payments made under the contract and the equity in their home at the time of contracting — were of a type that regarded the contract as void and attempted to restore the Forbeses to their precontractual situation.

 Forbes, supra.

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.

 

 

DOCTRINE OF AVOIDABLE CONSEQUENCES AS AFFIRMATIVE DEFENSE

shutterstock_694657774The doctrine of avoidable consequences is an affirmative defense that can be used in certain property damage lawsuits.  This is a defense that does not go to liability, but it goes to damages.  This doctrine of avoidable consequences defense holds that a plaintiff cannot recover damages caused by a defendant that the plaintiff could have reasonably avoided.  See Media Holdings, LLC v. Orange County, Florida, 43 Fla.L.Weekly D237c (Fla. 5th DCA 2018).  Stated differently, if the plaintiff could have reasonably avoided the consequences of the damages caused by the defendant then the plaintiff cannot recover those damages.  However, the defendant needs to prove this defense — the burden is on the defendant to establish this defense (ideally through expert testimony).  

 

For example, in Media Holdings, a party that was putting on a trade show at a convention center caused the fire sprinkler system to be set off causing substantial water damage.  The owner of the convention center sued the party.  The party argued the doctrine of avoidable consequences, i.e., that the convention center’s damages were caused by or exacerbated by its failure to shut down the sprinkler system as soon as reasonably possible; had the convention center done so, its damages would be much different.  This defense was a question of fact.  Remember, it is not a defense as to liability because the party did cause the sprinkler system to be set off.  Rather, it went directly to the amount of damages the plaintiff was seeking. 

 

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.

CREATIVE AVENUE FOR JUDGMENT CREDITOR TO COLLECT A JUDGMENT

images-1I have a judgment against another entity.  Now what?  I want to briefly talk about this “now what?” in the context of the recent decision in MYD Marine Distributor, Inc. v. International Paint, Ltd., 41 Fla. L. Weekly D2364a (Fla. 4th DCA 2016).  Although this case is not a construction case, it poses an interesting issue for any entity that has a judgment entered against it (known as the judgment debtor) while it is contemporaneously the plaintiff and pursuing monetary damages in an unrelated case or cases.   This case also presents an avenue for any judgment creditor to pursue in the event other post-judgment collection efforts are unsuccessful. 

 

In this case, a judgment creditor received a judgment for $550,000 against the judgment debtor.  The judgment creditor proceeded with post-judgment collection activities and recovered only $120,000 from these activities.  The judgment debtor at this time was the plaintiff in an unrelated lawsuit.  The judgment creditor instituted proceedings supplementary pursuant to Florida Statute s. 56.29 to have the judgment debtor’s pending lawsuit assigned to it.  This would allow the judgment creditor to control the pending lawsuit, settle the lawsuit, and, importantly, utilize any proceeds from the lawsuit to reduce the judgment.   The trial court allowed this assignment and the appellate court affirmed:

 

Donovan [judgment creditor] used section 56.29 to initiate proceedings supplementary. Section 56.29(5) provides that a court “may order any property of the judgment debtor, not exempt from execution, in the hands of any person, or any property, debt, or other obligation due to the judgment debtor, to be applied toward the satisfaction of the judgment debt.” A “chose in action” is “property” within the meaning of section 56.29(5). A “chose in action” is a “personal right not reduced into possession, but recoverable by a suit at law. . . . A right to receive or recover a debt, demand, or damages on a cause of action ex contractu or for a tort or omission of a duty.” MYD’s [judgment debtor’s] lawsuit against Lauderdale Marine [unrelated party] was a chose in action subject to the reach of section 56.29(5) proceedings supplementary.

MYD Marine Distributor, 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.

 

 

BREACH OF A CONSTRUCTION CONTRACT & AN EQUITABLE REMEDY?

UnknownIn payment or collection-type lawsuits, the party suing for money sometimes asserts a claim for unjust enrichment or quantum meruit as an alternative equitable remedy to a breach of contract claim.   Frankly, sometimes a party will do this as a means to throw everything against the wall hoping something, just something, sticks.   However, if there is a contract by and between the parties, equitable claims such as unjust enrichment or quantum meruit will invariably fail.   They will fail because a party cannot circumvent a contract simply because their recourse may prove better under an equitable theory.  It doesn’t work like that! And, it should not!

 

For example, in Daake v. Decks N Such Marine, Inc., 41 Fla. L. Weekly D1992e (Fla. 1st DCA 2016),  a contractor was hired to construct a seawall and a beach house on two lots.  One lot was owned by the homeowners in a personal capacity and the other lot was owned by them in the name of a family trust. The contractor was unpaid and sued the owners for breach of contract and sued the family trust for quantum meruit.  The problem was that the family trust was deemed a party to the contract.  Because the family trust was a party to the contract, the contractor could NOT recover any damages under an equitable theory such as quantum meruit or unjust enrichment.   This was a harsh ruling, but the correct ruling since the contractor was deemed a party to the contract.  The contractor was owed money but did not sue the family trust for breach of contract.  As a result, the contractor could not recover money by bypassing a breach of contract claim for an equitable quantum meruit claim.  A court cannot award damages under an equitable theory when the contractor has an adequate remedy of law—a breach of contract claim. See Daake, supra, (“Quantum meruit is premised upon the absence of an express and enforceable agreement; accordingly, the existence of a valid, written contract between the parties necessarily precludes the doctrine’s application.”).

 

There are times where pleading alternative theories of liability is important.  This includes pleading a breach of contract claim and an alternative equitable claim such as unjust enrichment or quantum meruit.  This becomes important if you do NOT know whether a certain party will actually be bound by and deemed a party to the contract, which was the situation in Daake.    With that said, in your typical payment / collection-type lawsuit, there is a contract between the parties and the equitable claim will fail and should fail.  If parties could bypass the harsh remedy of contractual provisions by suing for unjust enrichment or quantum meruit, believe me, they would.   When parties are owed money or lost money on a contract, they typically want to avoid risks they agreed to by virtue of the contract.

 

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.