SERVING THE 558 NOTICE OF CONSTRUCTION DEFECT LETTER IN LIGHT OF THE STATUTE OF REPOSE

shutterstock_683852965Florida Statutes Chapter 558 requires a Notice of Construction Defect letter (“558 Notice”) to be served before a construction defect lawsuit is commenced.  This is a statutory requirement unless contractually waived for a completed project when latent defects or post-completion construction or design defects are pursued.  

 

A recent Florida case held that this statutory requirement is NOT intended to bar a lawsuit based on Florida’s ten-year statute of repose for construction defects IF the 558 Notice is timely served within the statute of repose period.  After the expiration of the statute of repose period, a construction defect lawsuit can no longer be commenced.  

 

In Gindel v. Centex Homes, 43 Fla. L. Weekly D2112d (Fla. 4th DCA 2018), homeowners took possession of townhomes on March 31, 2004.  The homeowners discovered construction defects and on February 6, 2014 provided the 558 Notice to the homebuilder.  This notice was served before the expiration of the ten-year statute of repose period.  The homebuilder notified the homeowners it would not cure the defect and the homeowners initiated a construction defect lawsuit on May 2, 2014, more than ten years from when they took possession of their townhomes, and outside of the statute of repose period. 

 

The issue was the application of Florida’s ten-year statute of repose in Florida Statute 95.11(3)(c). 

 

The homeowners argued that its action commenced upon serving the statutorily required 558 Notice so that its lawsuit was timely filed.

 

The homebuilder argued that the homeowners commenced their action by filing the lawsuit after the ten-year statute of repose, irrespective of when the 558 Notice was served, meaning the construction defect lawsuit should be barred.  The trial court agreed with this argument.

 

On appeal, however, the appellate court agreed with the homeowners that the presuit notice requirements called for in Florida Statutes Chapter 558 constitute an action for purposes of the statute of repose.  In other words, by the homeowners serving the 558 Notice within the ten-year statute of repose period, the homeowners timely commenced their construction defect lawsuit.  To hold otherwise would be to view Florida Statute Chapter 558 as a device to potentially bar claims when the required 558 Notice was timely served.  This position makes sense considering a claimant cannot file a construction defect lawsuit without complying with Chapter 558.  See Fla.Stat. s. 558.003.

 

When it is coming close to the ten-year statute of repose (or statute of limitations) deadline, the safer approach is to file the lawsuit and move to stay or abate the lawsuit pending compliance with the Florida Statues Chapter 558.  This way this issue is fully avoided by the lawsuit already being initiated. This approach is also supported in Chapter 558 by stating the action shall be stayed pending compliance with the requirements of the statute.  See Fla.Stat. s. 558.003.  

 

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.

GENERAL CONTRACTORS: CONSIDER IMPORTANCE OF “PRIMARY AND NONCONTRIBUTORY” LANGUAGE

UnknownIn prior articles, I reinforced the importance of general contractors including “primary and noncontributory” language in subcontracts and requiring the subcontractor to provide an analogous “primary and noncontributory” endorsement.   As a general contractor this is important, particularly since you are going to require the subcontractor to (i) indemnify you for claims relating to personal injury, property damage, or death, and (ii) identify you as an additional insured under its commercial general liability (CGL) policy for claims arising out of the subcontractor’s scope of work.   The “primary and noncontributory” language in your subcontracts allows you to maximize the value of your additional insured status.  

 

A recent opinion explains why I reinforced the importance of this language.

 

The case of Zurich American Insurance Co. v. Amerisure Ins. Co., 2017 WL 366232 (S.D. Fla. 2017) involved an underlying construction defect lawsuit where a condominium association sued a general contractor.    The general contractor hired subcontractors and required them to identify the general contractor as an additional insured.   This is all routine, right?  A few of the subcontractors had CGL policies issued from the same insurer (Amerisure).  They contained the same additional insured endorsement that included the following “other insurance” clause:

 

Any coverage provided in this endorsement is excess over any other valid and collectible insurance available to the additional insured whether primary, excess, contingent, or on any other basis unless the written contract, agreement, or certificate of insurance requires that this insurance be primary, in which case this insurance will be primary without contribution from such other insurance available to the additional insured.

 

When the general contractor was sued it, as it should, tendered the defense of the lawsuit to the responsible subcontractors as an additional insured under their policies demanding both a defense and indemnification from the association’s claims.  The insurer, however, refused to defend the general contractor.  The general contractor’s insurer (Zurich) defended the general contractor in the action. 

 

Thereafter, the general contractor’s CGL insurer sued the subcontractors’ CGL insurer.  (The general contractor had also assigned its additional insured rights under the policies to its CGL insurer.)  The general contractor’s CGL insurer was seeking reimbursement for the attorney’s fees and costs expended in the defense of the general contractor in the underlying construction defect lawsuit.  The subcontractors’ CGL insurer moved to dismiss the claims based on the clause above—that the subcontractors’ CGL insurance operated as excess insurance over the general contractor’s CGL insurance.  In other words, the subcontractors’ CGL insurance was not primary and noncontributory.  There was no allegation that the subcontract included language requiring the subcontractor’s CGL insurer to be primary and noncontributory. 

 

The first reason this is an important point is because “when an insurance policy defines its coverage as secondary or “excess” to a primary policy, the excess insurer has no duty to defend the insured—so long as the primary policy provides for a defense and its coverage has not been exhausted.”  Zurich American Ins. Co., supra, at *4.    If the subcontractors’ CGL policy is excess, then than their CGL insurer does not have a duty to defend if the primary policy is not exhausted.   This means they have no duty to defend the additional insured – not very helpful to a general contractor tendering the defense of the claim to responsible subcontractors. 

 

The second reason this is an important point is because of what is known between liability insurers as the anti-contribution rule:

 

Florida courts have consistently held that, once the duty to defend is activated, every subject insurer assumes it on a personal and indivisible basis. That means that when an insured tenders a claim to multiple insurance providers, the entity that actually engages in the defense and incurs the fees and costs associated with it cannot subsequently seek contribution or equitable subrogation from the fellow insurer who “lagg[ed] behind.”

Zurich American Ins., Co., supra, at *5 (internal citations omitted).

 

Since the general contractor’s CGL insurer bore the costs of the general contractor’s defense in the construction defect lawsuit, it cannot now divvy up the defense fees and costs to other insurers that may have had a similar obligation unless an exception to this rule applies (see below).

 

The third reason this is an important point is because there is an exception to this anti-contribution rule:

 

A “responsive” insurer who complied with its insured’s tender for defense can extract reimbursement from the “nonresponsive” insurer when the insured had separately contracted with another entity, itself an insured of the nonresponsive carrier, to indemnify the first insured. The logic of the exception is that the insured parties’ express decision to “shift[ ] exposure” from one to the other is imputed to the insurer relationship and overcomes the general anti-contribution principle.

Zurich American Ins., Co., supra, at *8 (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.

ADDITIONAL INSURED OBLIGATIONS AND THE UNDERLYING LAWSUIT

images-1As a general contractor, you understand the importance of being named an additional insured under your subcontractors’ commercial general liability (CGL) policies.   Not only do you want your subcontract to express that a subcontractor’s CGL policy is primary and noncontributory to your policy, but you want it to express that the subcontractor must identify you as an additional insured for ongoing and completed operations.  Even with this language, you want the subcontractor to provide you with their additional insured endorsement and, preferably, a primary and noncontributory endorsement.    These additional insured obligations are important to any general contractor that has been sued in a construction defect / property damage lawsuit.

 

In the recent decision in Core Construction Services Southeast, Inc. v. Crum & Forster Ins. Co., 2016 WL 5403578 (11th Cir. 2016), a general contractor built a residential development.  The general contractor required its roofing subcontractor to identify it as an additional insured under the roofer’s CGL policy.   The general contractor was sued with the lawsuit asserting that the roofs were installed incorrectly.  The general contractor tendered the defense of the claim to the roofer’s CGL insurer and the insurer refused to provide the defense because there was no “property damage” within the definition of the CGL policy (“physical injury to tangible property…”).    The general contractor then filed a lawsuit against the subcontractor’s insurer arguing that the insurer was obligated to defend and indemnify it since the general contractor was an additional insured under the subcontractor’s CGL policy.  The trial court, and as affirmed by the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeal, held that the insurer owed no duty to defend or indemnity the general contractor because there was NO asserted property damage within the meaning of the policyIf there was no property damage then there was no obligation for the roofing subcontractor’s insurer to defend the general contractor as an additional insured under the subcontractor’s CGL policy. 

 

The underlying lawsuit only claimed that the roofs had been damaged but did NOT claim that the defective roofs had caused damage to other property (other components of the building).  The omission of this assertion was important because the complaint was not pled to trigger insurance duties, such as additional insured obligations, since the cost to repair or replace the damaged roof would not be covered by the subcontractor’s CGL insurer.  Rather, costs to replace or repair damage caused by the subcontractor’s defective roofing installation would be covered; however, such damage was not pled in the underlying complaint.   Remember, the insurer’s duty to defend is only triggered based on allegations in the underlying complaint so without such allegations, there is no duty

 

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.