A recent Florida opinion between a prime contractor and a Florida public body touches upon two important issues: (1) the application of a no-damage-for-delay provision; and (2) the application of a liquidated damages provision. Both provisions find there way into many construction contracts. Unfortunately, the opinion is sparse on facts. Nevertheless, the application of these provisions is worthy of consideration.
In this opinion, Sarasota County v. Southern Underground Industries, Inc., 2022 WL 162977 (Fla. 2d DCA 2022), a county hired a contractor to install sanitary and water piping underneath a waterway. During construction, a nearby homeowner complained that vibration from the drilling caused damage to his home. As a result, the county stopped the contractor’s work to address a potential safety issue, as it was contractually entitled to do. The contractor hired a structural engineer to inspect the house and the engineer issued a report determining that any alleged damage was cosmetic and that there was sufficient monitoring of the vibrations to prevent future damage. The contractor also had an insurance policy to cover any homeowner claim for damage. However, upon receipt of the engineer’s report, the county did not lift its stop work order. Rather, the stop work order remained in place for an additional 71 days.
The contractor sued the county to recover its costs during the additional 71 days the project was stopped. The county relied on its no-damages-for-delay provision in its contract. The trial court, as affirmed by the appellate court, found that the county’s work stoppage for an additional 71 days amounted to active interference and bad faith.
“Although ‘no damages for delay’ clauses are recognized in law, they will not be enforced in the face of governmental ‘fraud, bad faith, or active interference’ with the performance under the contract.” Sarasota County, 2022 WL at *2 (citation omitted). There was no reason to keep the stop work order in place after it was found it was safe to resume the construction activities.
However, the trial court did assess liquidated damages against the contractor because the matter with the complaining homeowner had not been resolved by the contractual date for final acceptance.
For a liquidated damages clause to be enforceable, “the damages consequent upon a breach must not be readily ascertainable,” and “the sum stipulated to be forfeited must not be so grossly disproportionate to any damages that might reasonably be expected to follow from a breach.” “[L]iquidated damages clauses can exist only when they provide for ’damages’ (something to be given by one party who breaches the contract to the other party to compensate the other party for his loss which is a consequence of that breach).”
Sarasota County, 2022 WL at *2 (citations omitted).
The appellate court reversed the trial court’s assessment of liquidated damages because the county did not sustain any loss due to any delay to final acceptance. The contractor had completed all of its work by the contractual date except for resolving the complaining homeowner’s claim. “Thus, because the County had the full use for the completed construction project for over two years before final acceptance, ‘the sum stipulated to be forfeited,” was “grossly disproportionate to any damages that might [have been] expected to follow from a breach.’” Sarasota County, 2022 WL at *3 (citation omitted).
The limited facts do not do this opinion any justice. However, it’s important to appreciate that a no-damages-for-delay provision is not the be-all-and-end-all of a delay claim. It just isn’t! As this court found, the work stoppage beyond the point it should have been stopped was active interference and bad faith.
As for the liquidated damages argument, that’s a head scratcher unless the court’s point is that once the government got beneficial use of the project, any delay in its final acceptance of the contract constituted a penalty even though sophisticated parties agreed to this provision. (Not how the court worded it though!). Also, this opinion could have the affect of opening up Pandora’s box by allowing a party to take discovery on financial information or otherwise relative to actual damages when, frankly, this defeats the purpose of the liquidated damages provision.
Liquidated damages provisions on private jobs are negotiated by sophisticated parties. On public jobs, you know what the liquidated damages are and how the provision is generally worded and can factor that into your pricing, no different than any other risk included in the contract.
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