CONSEQUENTIAL DAMAGES CAN BE RECOVERED AGAINST INSURER IN BREACH OF CONTRACT

In a favorable case for insureds, the Fifth District Court of Appeal maintained that “when an insurer breaches an insurance contract, the insured is entitled to recover more than the pecuniary loss involved in the balance of the payments due under the policy in consequential damages, provided the damages were in contemplation of the parties at the inception of the [insurance] contract.”  Manor House, LLC v. Citizens Property Insurance Corp., 44 Fla. L. Weekly D1403b (Fla. 5thDCA 2019) (internal citations and quotation omitted).   Thus, consequential damages can be recovered against an insurer in a breach of contract action (e.g., breach of the insurance policy) if the damages can be proven and were in contemplation of the parties at the inception of the insurance contract.

 

In Manor House, the trial court entered summary judgment against the insured holding the insured could not seek lost rental income in its breach of contract action against Citizens Property Insurance because the property insurance policy did not provide coverage for lost rent.  However, the Fifth District reversed this ruling because the trial court denied the insured the opportunity to prove whether the parties contemplated that the insured, an apartment complex owner, would suffer lost rental income (consequential damages) if the insurer breached its contractual duties.

 

This ruling is valuable to insureds because Citizens Property Insurance, a creature of statute, cannot be sued for first-party bad faith.  However, the Fifth District found that the consequential damages in the form of lost rental income did not require the insured to prove the insurer acted in bad faith, but merely, breached the terms of the policy.   This holding can be extended to other breach of contract actions against an insurer when the insured suffered and can prove consequential-type damages caused by the breach. 

 

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.

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.

 

 

QUICK NOTE: ATTORNEY’S FEES AND THE SIGNIFICANT ISSUES TEST

imagesAttorney’s fees become a component of damages that parties seek to recover whenever there is a contractual or statutory basis for them to recover their fees.  Parties want to be able to recover all or substantially most of the attorney’s fees they incurred in pursuing their claim. (In my experience, recovering all of the fees incurred is very challenging.)  But, to be entitled to attorney’s fees, a party has to be deemed the prevailing party.  There is the sentiment that as long as you recover a positive net judgment (even if it is for $100 when your claim was for $50,000) then you will be able to recover your attorney’s fees which will likely exceed the amount that was ever in dispute.  With this sentiment, certain disputes become solely driven by attorney’s fees.  Now, there is a trend for the prevailing party for purposes of attorney’s fees for certain disputes such as construction lien actions and breach of contract actions to be determined by the significant issues test.  While recovering a net judgment is important, there are other equitable considerations a court or arbitrator can consider to determine the party that prevailed on the significant issues for purposes of awarding attorney’s fees.  This article explains more.  

 

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.