In lawsuits, there are times the defendant elects to sue a third-party defendant to pass-through its liability to the plaintiff to the third-party defendant. For example, in a construction defect scenario where the owner sues the general contractor, the general contractor will often sue subcontractors (third-party defendants) in order to pass-through its liability to the owner to subcontractors that performed the scopes of work at-issue. In other situations, a defendant may assert a cross-claim against another defendant to, among other things, pass-through any liability it has to the plaintiff to the other defendant. For example, in a construction defect scenario where the owner sues both the general contractor and subcontractors, the general contractor will often assert a cross-claim against the subcontractors to pass through its liability to the subcontractors.
A claim for contribution used to be a common claim asserted to pass-through liability in negligence-related actions. Contribution claims were routine in negligence actions when there used to be joint and several liability, i.e., a party could be responsible for all of the plaintiff’s damages irrespective of its percentage of fault with other defendants. “To state a claim for contribution, the claimant must allege a common liability to the injured party [plaintiff].” Horowitz v. Laske, 855 So.2d 169, 174(Fla. 5th DCA 2003). In other words, the defendant and third-party defendant must be jointly liable / negligent to the plaintiff for the injuries the plaintiff sustained. Therefore, by asserting a contribution claim, the defendant ensures that fault is allocated to another party that is jointly liable for the damages sustained by the plaintiff.
However, Florida abolished joint and several liability in negligence actions and, now, a defendant can only be liable based on its determined percentage of fault. See Fla. Stat. s. 768.81; see also T&S Enterprises Handicap Accessibility, Inc. v. Wink Indus. Maintenance & Repair, Inc., 11 So.3d 411 (Fla. 2d DCA 2009) (affirming dismissal of defendant’s third party claim for contribution in underlying negligence action due to abolishment of joint and several liability). Because of this, third-party defendants or cross-claim defendants that are sued for contribution should argue that the contribution claim is moot because the party suing it can only be held liable for its percentage of fault or negligence. Some judges will dismiss a contribution claim for this reason on a motion to dismiss, but others will still allow the claim to proceed beyond a motion to dismiss for judicial efficiency and economy since it is easier to wrap up a dispute in one litigation instead of many (considering contribution claims have been routine claims to pass-through liability).
The opinion in Martinez v. Miami-Dade County, 2013 WL 5434159 (S.D.Fla. 2013) is a non-construction case that illustrates how a claim for contribution can proceed. In this case, a plaintiff sued Miami-Dade County and a bar for injuries the plaintiff sustained by off-duty police officers providing security for the bar. The claims against Miami-Dade Couty were sounded in intentional tort theories and not negligence theories. Miami-Dade County asserted a cross-claim against the bar and included a claim for contribution. The bar moved to dismiss the contribution claim arguing that contribution claims are obsolete under Florida law since there is no more joint and several liability. The Southern District Court disagreed expressing that because the plaintiff’s theories against Miami-Dade County were sounded in intentional tort and not negligence, section 768.81 did not apply. (Notably, section 768.81 section does not apply to intentional tort theories of liability.)
Under section 768.81, a negligence action means “without limitation, a civil action for damages based upon a theory of negligence, strict liability, products liability, professional malpractice whether couched in terms of contract or tort, or breach of warranty and like theories. The substance of an action, not conclusory terms used by a party, determines whether an action is a negligence action.” Fla. Stat. s. 768.81(1)(c). Therefore, even if the claims asserted are not labeled negligence claims, this section still applies to bar joint and several liability to ensure a party is only liable for their percentage of fault. It is designed so that substance over form is analyzed to determine whether the plaintiff’s underlying action is a negligence action even if it is not labeled as such.
This opinion in Martinez, however, could support the argument that a contribution claim could be asserted outside of a negligence claim such as a breach of contract action (since, in the case, a contribution claim was still allowed to proceed in an intentional tort action). And, even though section 768.81 shifts the focus from the label of the plaintiff’s claims to the actual substance underlying the claims, the objective is to argue that plaintiff’s claims are not based in negligence, but based in a material breach of a contractual provision. For example, in a construction defect setting, when the general contractor is sued for breach of contract, there may be strategic reasons why the general contractor would want to attempt to assert a contribution claim in addition to an indemnification claim against subcontractors to pass-through liability. The general contractor would argue that the plaintiff’s claims are not based in negligence but based in contract since the plaintiff is asserting that the project was not constructed per the contract documents (or in a workmanlike manner) per contractual provisions.
Finally, if a general contractor elects to assert a contribution claim, it is important to remember that the claim will only survive if it asserts and can establish that it and the subcontractor(s) share a common liability to the owner. This is challenging.
In Helmet House Corp. v. Stoddard, 861 So.2d 1178 (Fla. 4th DCA 2003), a contractor was sued by an owner for breach of contract and breach of warranty for defective construction of a roof. The contractor asserted a third party party complaint against its roofing subcontractor for contribution. The Fourth District held that the contractor could not pursue a contribution claim against its subcontractor because the subcontractor did not share a common obligation / liability to the owner. The Fourth District found that parties share a common liability if they are joint tortfeasors or co-obligors on an obligation. Importantly, many subcontracts contain flow-down provisions that bind the subcontractor to the general contractor to the same extent the general contractor is bound to the owner. Flow-down provisions attempt to impose the exact same liability on the subcontractor that the general contractor assumes towards the owner. With this type of provision, or an alternative provision that would make the owner an intended third-party beneficiary of the subcontract, there may be an argument that subcontractors do indeed share a common liability to the owner with the general contractor for defects with their scopes of work. From the general contractor’s perspective, the objective is to pass-through liability for defective construction with arguments based on the plaintiff’s allegations in the complaint.
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