SLAVIN DOCTRINE AND DEFENSE FROM PATENT DEFECTS

shutterstock_1094947985The Slavin doctrine is an affirmative defense primarily geared to the personal injury context designed to protect contractors from third-party negligence-type claims when an owner accepts a patent defect.  

 

The Slavin doctrine protects contractors from liability for injuries to third parties by presuming that the owner has made a “reasonably careful inspection” of the contractor’s work prior to accepting it as completed; if the owner accepts the contractor’s work as complete and an alleged defect is patent, then the owner “accepts the defects and the negligence that caused them as his own,” and the contractor will no longer be liable for the patent defect.

 

“[T]he test for patency is not whether or not the condition was obvious to the owner, but whether or not the dangerousness of the condition was obvious had the owner exercised reasonable care.” While in most cases, the patency or latency of a dangerous condition is a question of fact for the jury, thereby precluding summary judgment, there are exceptions where the undisputed material facts establish that if there was a defect, then that defect would have been patent.

Valiente v. R.J. Behar & Company, Inc., 2018 WL 2708712, *2 (Fla. 3d DCA 2018) (internal quotations omitted).

 

Valiente is a recent decision where the trial court, as affirmed by the appellate court, ruled in favor of contractors (and an engineer) as to the applicability of the Slavin doctrine in a wrongful death action.  In this case, the decedent was killed in 2008 when his motorcycle ran into another vehicle at an intersection.  The estate claimed that the shrubs in the swale create a dangerous condition by blocking the view of motorists and causing the accident.  The shrubs were planted in 2005 as part of a city’s roadway project.   The estate sued the city, the designer, the general contractor, and the nursery hired by the city to provide the landscaping for the roadway project.

 

The designer, contractor, and nursery moved for summary judgment on their Slavin doctrine affirmative defense.  They all claimed they should be relieved of liability for the accident (and, thus, the death) because the work was long completed, the City accepted the work, and the alleged defect dealing with the shrubs blocking passing motorist’s views was patent.  The evidence revealed that when the shrubs were originally planted they were 2 feet taller than the maximum height required.  

 

For purposes of patency under the Slavin doctrine, the relevant question is: if the plantings [shubs] created a visual obstruction (the alleged dangerous condition), was that dangerous condition latent or patent? And, to reiterate, the test for patency, is not what the City knew, but rather, what the City could have discovered [the dangerous condition] had the City performed a reasonably careful inspection.  

Valiente, 2018 WL at *2.

 

Here, because the it was ruled that the city accepted a patent defect, the Court granted summary judgment in favor of the defendants on their Slavin doctrine defense.  

 

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.

CONTRACTORS: CONSULT YOUR INSURANCE BROKER REGARDING YOUR CGL POLICY

shutterstock_601853483Contractors:  do yourself a favor and consult your insurance broker regarding your commercial general liability (CGL) policy.   Do this now, especially if you subcontract out work.

 

CGL policies contain a “your work” exclusion.  The CGL policy is written such that it excludes “‘property damage’ to ‘your work’ arising out of it or any part of it and included in the ‘products-completed operations hazard.’” This exclusion will be raised in the post-completion latent construction defect scenario. (There are other exclusions that will be raised to a defect discovered during construction.)  Certain policies will contain a subcontractor exception to this “your work” exclusion.  You WANT this exception- no doubt about it so that this exclusion does not apply to work performed by your subcontractors.  Without this subcontractor exception, truth be told, this “your work” exclusion is a total back-breaker to contractors.   It will give your insurer an immediate out for many latent defect property scenarios since excluded from coverage is property damage to your work including work performed by your subcontractors.

 

In a recent opinion, Mid-Continent Casualty Co. v. JWN Construction, Inc., 2018 WL 783102 (S.D.Fla. 2018), an owner discovered water intrusion and damage at his property.  He sued the general contractor and the general contractor’s insurer filed a separate action for declaratory relief claiming it had NO duty to defend or indemnify its insured—the general contractor—in the underlying suit.  The court agreed because the contractor did not have the subcontractor exception to the “your work” exclusion.

 

If work was performed by JWN [contractor] or on JWN’s behalf-here by a subcontractor-then the “your work” exclusion applies.  Historically, insurers could be liable under commercial general liabilities policies resembling the policy in the instant case for certain types of damages caused by subcontractors….Nonetheless, insurers do possess the right to define their coverage as excluding damages arising out of a subcontractor’s defective work by eliminating subcontractor’s exceptions from the policy. An insurer is only liable for a subcontractor’s defective work when the “your work” exclusion does not eliminate coverage for work performed by a subcontractor….In conclusion, the insurance policy in this case excluded coverage for work performed not only by JWN, but also by JWN’s subcontractors.

JWN Construction, Inc., supra, at *4.

 

 

This ruling meant that the general contractor’s CGL insurer had no duty to defend or indemnify its insured—again, the contractor—for the defects or resulting water damage.  A total killer illustrating the absolute importance of the subcontractor exception to the “your work” exclusion in your CGL policy.

 

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.

STATUTE OF LIMITATIONS AND REPOSE FOR INDEMNIFICATION CLAIMS (STEMMING FROM CONSTRUCTION DEFECT)

images-1I have written articles regarding the statute of limitations and statute of repose relating to construction disputes governed under Florida Statute s. 95.11(3)(c):

 

Within Four Years.  An action founded on the design, planning, or construction of an improvement to real property, with the time running from the date of actual possession by the owner, the date of the issuance of a certificate of occupancy, the date of abandonment of construction if not completed, or the date of completion or termination of the contract between the professional engineer, registered architect, or licensed contractor and his or her employer, whichever date is latest; except that, when the action involves a latent defect, the time runs from the time the defect is discovered or should have been discovered with the exercise of due diligence. In any event, the action must be commenced within 10 years after the date of actual possession by the owner, the date of the issuance of a certificate of occupancy, the date of abandonment of construction if not completed, or the date of completion or termination of the contract between the professional engineer, registered architect, or licensed contractor and his or her employer, whichever date is latest.

 

In the construction defect context, a claimant has four years to sue from the date they knew or reasonably should have known with the exercise of due diligence the defect (e.g, the latent defect).  This is the statute of limitations.  Nonetheless, a claimant must sue no matter what on a latent defect within ten years from the project’s completion (see statute above).  This is the statute of reposeA construction defect lawsuit cannot be initiated after the expiration of the statute of repose.

 

Let’s assume the following dates:

 

            Project completion (start of limitations)                                          2005

            First discovery of water intrusion                                                   2008

            General contractor completes repairs                                            2011

            General contractor sues subcontractor for indemnification            2013

 

In this scenario, the subcontractor may argue that the general contractor’s statute of limitations to sue the subcontractor for the defect and damage is barred by the statute of limitations since the first discovery of water intrusion was in 2008 and the general contractor waited to sue until 2013 (five years later).

 

But, wait…the general contractor is going to sue the subcontractor for indemnification (preferably, contractual indemnification based on the terms of the subcontract). In this scenario, the general contractor is suing after it completed repairs and established its liability to the owner for repairing the defects and damage. 

 

The statute of limitations for an action seeking indemnity does not being running until the litigation against the third-party plaintiff [general contractor] has ended or the liability [against the third-party plaintiff], if any, has been settled or discharged by payment.” Castle Constr. Co. v. Huttig Sash & Door Co., 425 So.2d 573, 575 (Fla. 2d DCA 1982) (finding general contractor’s indemnity claim against subcontractor did not accrue until the owner’s litigation against the general contractor ended or the general contractor’s liability determined).  Stated differently, the statute of limitations for the general contractor’s indemnification claim did not begin to start running until 2011 when its liability to the owner for the defects was discharged / settled.

 

Now, let’s assume the following dates:

 

     Project completion (start of limitations)                                          2005

            First discovery of water intrusion                                                   2008

            General contractor completes repairs                                            2013

            General contractor sues subcontractor for indemnification            2016

 

In this instance, the subcontractor may argue that the statute of repose expired because the general contractor waited until 2016 or eleven years after the statute of limitations started to accrue in 2005.  Guess what?  The subcontractor would be right.  See Dep’t of Transp. V. Echeverri, 736 So.2d 791 (Fla. 3d DCA 1999) (explaining that the statute of repose for construction defect claims still applies to claims for indemnity).  Stated differently, even though the general contractor sued the subcontractor for indemnification within three years of establishing its liability, it was still bound by the ten year statute of repose that started accruing in 2005, meaning such lawsuits were barred after 2015.

 

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.

 

IS THE 10 YEAR STATUTE OF REPOSE FOR CONSTRUCTION DEFECTS REALLY A 10 YEAR STATUTE OF REPOSE?

UnknownIt is time for a very favorable case for an owner that experiences latent defects.  In construction defect cases, there is a ten-year statute of repose to sue for latent defects.  Specifically, under Florida Statute s. 95.11(3)(c), the “action must be commenced within 10 years after the date of actual possession by the owner, the date of the issuance of a certificate of occupancy, the date of abandonment of construction if not completed, or the date of completion or termination of the contract between the professional engineer, registered architect, or licensed contractor and his or her employer, whichever date is latest.  Stated differently, the latent defect lawsuit must be commenced no later than 10 years from the latest of one of the specified conditions or else the lawsuit is forever barred.

 

The question is when does the ten-year repose period really begin to run; what condition specifically triggers the running of the period.   The Fifth District Court of Appeal in Cypress Fairway Condominium v. Bergeron Construction Co. Inc., 40 Fla. L. Weekly D1097b (Fla. 5th DCA 2015) concluded that the statute of repose in a construction defect case began to run on the completion of the contract which was the date the owner made final payment under the contract. Naturally, the completion of the contract would be the latest condition and completion does not occur until the owner fulfills its obligation by making final payment.

 

What does this mean?  This means that the repose period does NOT commence when construction is actually completed or when the certificate of occupancy is issued.  Rather, it commences when the owner tenders final payment to its contractor (after it accepts the construction and punchlist work).

 

The ramifications of this type of opinion are unknown and potentially scary.  What if the owner withholds payment and does not make final payment for months if not years after the contractor completed construction and the owner has received a certificate of occupancy.  Maybe there is a dispute as to punchlist or warranty items that results in the owner not making final payment.  Does the owner get the benefit of withholding money or delaying making final payment?  Perhaps.

 

There have been recent cases that have been fairly generous to owners with respect to the statute of repose in construction defect cases.  Thus, if you are an owner and discover latent defects, consult with counsel because all may not be lost regarding a potential defect lawsuit.  And, if you are a contractor, do not automatically dismiss a construction defect lawsuit as being outside of the statute of repose and be sure to consult with counsel to best protect your interests.

 

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.