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.

SPEARIN DOCTRINE AS AN AFFIRMATIVE DEFENSE

images-1The Spearin doctrine, referred to as the implied warranty of constructability doctrine, is oftentimes utilized as an affirmative defense by a contractor being sued for construction defects.  Under the Spearin doctrine (recognized in the government contract setting), a contractor is NOT liable for defects in the plans and specifications furnished by the owner if the contractor constructs the project pursuant to the plans and specifications.  This is because the owner impliedly warrants the constructability of the plans and specifications it furnishes to the contractor.  Hence, the contractor should not be liable for defective construction caused by the owner furnishing defective plans and specifications.

 

As with any affirmative defense, the contractor asserting the Spearin doctrine has the burden to prove the merits of the defenseSpecifically, the contractor has the burden to prove that there was an error in the plans or specifications and that such error was the proximate cause of the defective construction.  The contractor needs to prove this in order to sustain the Spearin doctrine as an affirmative defense.  See, e.g., Underwater Engineering Services, Inc. v. Utility Board of the City of Key West, 194 So.3d 437, n. 4 (Fla. 3d DCA 2016) (“By raising this defense [of the Spearin Doctrine] Underwater [contractor] had the burden to prove not only that there was a defect in the specifications, but that the defect in the specifications was the proximate cause of the failure of the eight [concrete] collars.”); see also Rick’s Mushroom Service, Inc. v. U.S., 521 F.3d 1338, 1344-45 (Fed.Cir. 2008) (“‘When the government provides a contractor with defective specifications, the government is deemed to have breached the implied warranty that satisfactory contract performance will result from adherence to the specifications, and the contractor is entitled to recover all of the costs proximately flowing from the breach.’”) quoting Essex Electro Eng’rs, Inc. v. Danzig, 224 F.3d 1283, 1289 (Fed.Cir.2000).

 

Asserting the Spearin doctrine as an affirmative defense is one thing, but proving it is another.  If relying on this defense, make sure to prove through expert testimony that there was (i) a defect in the plans or specifications furnished by the owner and (ii) that this defect proximately caused the defects or failures being asserted by the plaintiff (e.g., owner).   

 

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.

 

OWNER’S OBLIGATION GIVING NOTICE TO CURE TO CONTRACTOR AND ANALYZING REPAIR PROTOCOL

unknownRecently, I read an informative article from another attorney addressing considerations of an owner when it receives a repair protocol in response to a Florida Statutes Chapter 558 notice of defect letter.   This is a well-written article and raises two important issues applicable to construction defect disputes: 1) how is an owner supposed to respond to a repair protocol submitted by a contractor in accordance with Florida’s 558 notice of construction defects procedure and 2) irrespective of Florida’s 558 procedure, how is an owner supposed to treat a contractual notice to cure / notice of defect requirement that requires the owner to give the contractor a notice to cure a defect. This article raises such pertinent points that I wanted to address the issues and topics raised in this article.  

 

 558 Procedure–Owner’s Receipt of Contractor’s Repair Protocol

 

When a contractor submits a repair protocol to an owner in response to a notice of construction defects letter per Florida Statutes Chapter 558, the owner should seriously consider that protocol.   The owner does this by discussing with counsel and any retained expert.   The owner needs to know whether the protocol is a reasonable, cost-effective protocol to repair the asserted defects or, alternatively, whether the protocol is merely a band-aid approach and/or otherwise insufficiently addresses the claimed defects.  Every scenario is different. 

 

Oftentimes, I want my client’s expert (if I represent the owner) to analyze the protocol and opine as to the deficiencies in the repair protocol, as well as problems concerning the actual logistics of implementing the protocol.  The objective would be that these opinions would come out down the road (say trial) when the contractor argues that the owner failed to mitigate damages by not promptly implementing the contractor’s repair protocol.    Sometimes, I want a tolling agreement (an agreement to extend the statute of limitations where the other side agrees not to raise the statute of limitations as a defense) so that if the repairs do not work, the owner’s rights are not prejudiced and the owner can still pursue the defect claim. 

 

 As the article correctly pointed out, every scenario is fact-specific, however, in each scenario, the owner should consider the repairs being proposed by the contractor in response to a Florida Statutes Chapter 558 notice of construction defects letter.

 

Contractual Notice to Cure / Opportunity to Repair

 

The article further discussed the case of Underwater Engineering Services, Inc. v. Utility Board of the City of Key West, 194 So.3d 437 (Fla. 3d DCA 2016).  Without getting into all of the technical facts, a public owner hired a contractor to perform certain structural repairs and, applicable here, the contract provided:

 

1.5 DEFECT ASSESSMENT

A. Replace the Work, or portions of the Work, not conforming to specified requirements.

B. If, at the request of the Contractor and in the opinion of the Engineer, it is not Practical to remove and replace the Work, the Engineer will direct one of the following remedies:

1. The defective Work may remain, but the Unit Price will be adjusted to a new price as agreed to by the Owner and Engineer.

2. The defective Work will be partially repaired to the instructions of the Engineer, and the Unit Price will be adjusted to a new price.

 

The public owner claimed that the contractor defectively constructed eight concrete collars.  However, the public owner failed to give the contractor an opportunity to cure / replace the defectively constructed concrete collars.   In other words, the contractor was never given an opportunity to actually cure or replace the asserted defect pursuant to the terms of the contract.  As a consequence of the public owner violating this opportunity to cure requirement, the appellate court reversed an award of damages in favor of the public owner and remanded with directions to enter judgment in favor of the contractor as to the owner’s defect claim.  Thus, by the public owner failing to give the contractor a contractual opportunity to cure–and  unilaterally fixing the defects–the owner recovered nothing from the contractor due to the defective work.

 

Irrespective of the requirements of Florida Statutes Chapter 558, an owner should absolutely comply with a contractual notice to cure / repair requirement.  Otherwise, the contractor has the argument that the owner’s failure to comply with this contractual requirement should preclude the owner from recovering any damages for fixing the defect.

 

Further, if an owner receives a repair protocol, whether in response to a contractual notice to cure requirement or Florida Statutes Chapter 558, the owner should consider the repair protocol and consult with counsel and any retained expert to analyze the reasonableness and logistics of the protocol.

 

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.