OWNERS: UNDERSTAND AND APPRECIATE THE STATUTE OF LIMITATIONS FOR CONSTRUCTION DEFECTS

imagesCASAN61XHaving an understanding of the statute of limitations when an owner notices a construction defect with their property is essential to ensure that legal actions are timely filed. Not having this appreciation could have a devastating impact. It could result in an owner being legally barred from pursuing an action for debiltating construction defects or damages. This should never be the case.

 

The statute of limitations for construction disputes is primarily governed by Florida Statute §95.11(3)(c). This section provides that there is a four year statute of limitations for:

 

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.”

 

Now, what exactly does all of this mean? To begin with, this means that the statute of limitations for construction disputes commences on the latest of: i) the owner’s possession of the property, ii) the issuance of the certificate of occupancy by the governing building department, iii) the date construction was abandoned if the project was not completed, or iv) the date the contract was terminated (which would also typically be the case if the project was not completed).

 

For a completed construction project, the dates I like to focus on are the temporary and/or permanent certificates of occupancy dates because these signify the dates the owner is entitled to occupy their property in whole or in part. These are also hard dates that can be confirmed through the building department and the closing of the building permit. The owner has four years to initiate a lawsuit from this date.

 

However, when an owner discovers a construction defect or damage to their property (i.e., water intrusion or leak, mold, cracked or spalling stucco, etc.), it is frequently a discovery that occurs many years AFTER completion and occupancy. When this occurs, the statute of limitations becomes less clear.

 

The discovery of a defect or damage after completion is referred to as latent defect because the defect or damage was not patently visible during construction (or reasonably discovered with the exercise of due diligence prior to the owner’s acceptance and occupancy of the property). In this circumstance, the statute of limitations commences on the date the latent defect was discovered. But, under the law, in no event can the cause of action be pursued more than ten years after the factors referenced above (project completion). This cap on when an action can be filed with respect to a given construction dispute is referred to as the statute of repose.

 

For example, let’s assume a project was completed on December 31, 2010. Many years later, on December 31, 2017, the owner discovers serious latent defects. This discovery starts the running of the statute of limitations. But, the owner would not have four years to sue on these latent defects because if he waited the four years until December 31, 2021, his suit would be barred by the statute of repose, which would cap suits relating to the project ten years from completion on December 31, 2020.

 

Understanding when the statute of limitations would commence and when actions would be barred under the law is important and, many times, factually complicated. Recently, the Third District Court of Appeal in Hochberg v. Thomas Carter Painting, Inc., 36 Fla. L. Weekly D1200f (3d DCA 2011), analyzed the running of the statute of limitations in a construction dispute. In this case, owners hired a contractor to build their beautiful new home. After the home was completed in 2003 and the owners moved in, they discovered mold and water intrusion damage. The owners immediately hired an engineer to analyze their discovery and the root of the defects. The expert produced a preliminary report in 2004 addressing the cause of the defects.

 

In 2008, the owners sued the subcontractors responsible for the defects for negligence and violation of Florida’s building code. Subcontractors argued that the owners filed their lawsuit outside of the statute of limitations because they discovered the defects in 2003 but waited until 2008 to file their lawsuit. The owners argued that the statute of limitations should be tolled until they discovered the exact nature of the defects or magnitude of the underlying problem and which trade subcontractors the defects could be attributed to.

 

The appellate court held that, “Florida law is clear that ‘where there is an obvious manifestation of a defect, notice will be inferred at the time of manifestation [discovery] regardless of whether the plaintiff has knowledge of the exact nature of the defect.’” Hochberg quoting Performing Arts Center Auth. v. Clark Constr. Grp., Inc., 789 So.2d 392, 394 (Fla. 4th DCA 2001). In other words, even though the owners did not understand the magnitude of the defects or what specifically was causing the water intrusion into their home, the court maintained that their initial discovery of water intrusion and related damage (i.e, mold, wet carpeting) triggered the commencement of the statute of limitations.

 

This holding is important because when an owner discovers construction defects and damage, they do not discover or appreciate the magnitude of the discovery. For instance, an owner may discover wet interior finishes, smell or discover mold, discover cracks in their exterior finishes, or a roof leak, but will not typically know the specific defects causing these problems. They also typically will not have an appreciation as to the overall significance of the problem. Owners hire expert consultants to analyze these issues to not only determine the root and significance of the problem, but the method to fix the problems. The owners in this case tried to cleverly argue that the statute of limitations for latent defects should be tolled until an owner discovers the precise nature and cause of the defects, which would often correspond with the date the owners receive an opinion from their expert consultants. However, the court focused on the actual discovery of the defects or damage by the owners, rather than when the owner learned the magnitude of the problem.

 

Owners that discover a defect or damage with their home or property should absolutely not ignore the problem. Ignoring the problem could only exacerbate the underlying problems while potentially putting the owner in a situation where he is outside of the statute of limitations or repose and can no longer pursue an action against the parties responsible for the problems. Again, this should never be the case.

 

For more information on the statute of limitations and the statute of repose, please see: https://www.floridaconstructionlegalupdates.com/watering-down-the-10-year-statute-of-repose-period-for-construction-disputes/

 

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.

UNDERSTANDING COMMON LAW INDEMNITY

SHOWERDOOR4Common law indemnification is a “common” third party claim in multi-party litigation, particularly construction defect litigation. For instance, if a general contractor is sued by an owner for defects, the contractor may third party in the applicable subcontractors and assert a common law indemnification theory against the subcontractors to flow through liability. However, common law indemnity does not have to be asserted as a third party claim, but can be asserted as an affirmative claim after a judgment is entered against a party.

 

For example, in Diplomat Resorts Limited Partnership v. Tecnoglass, LLC, 38 Fla. L. Weekly D1126a (Fla. 4th DCA 2013), a hotel owner hired a contractor to furnish and install glass shower doors in hotel rooms. The subcontractor, naturally, purchased the glass doors from a fabricator / manufacturer and then installed the doors at the hotel. Unfortunately, many of the glass shower doors spontaneously fractured. The hotel owner obtained a judgment against the contractor in arbitration for the damages it incurred in replacing the doors. However, because the contractor was likely not collectible, the hotel owner took an assignment of the contractor’s claims against the fabricator / manufacturer because the thought was the glass fractured due to a defect in the fabrication process.

 

The hotel owner, standing in the shoes of its contractor through the assignment, sued the fabricator / manufacturer and asserted a common law indemnification claim which was dismissed with prejudice by the trial court. On appeal, the Fourth District reversed finding that the hotel owner (standing in the shoes as the contractor) properly asserted the following elements of common law indemnification: 1) that the contractor is wholly without fault, 2) the fabricator / manufacturer is at fault, and 3) the fabricator / manufacturer is liable to the contractor because the contractor was vicariously, constructively, derivatively, or technically liable to the hotel owner for the wrongful acts of the fabricator / manufacturer.

 

One of the challenges with common law indemnification is that there are court decisions that require the party seeking indemnification to be in a “special relationship” with the party it is seeking indemnification from. The Fourth District, however, maintained that a party does not need to specifically plead the existence of a special relationship because this “merely describes a relationship which makes a faultless party ‘only vicariously, constructively, derivatively, or technically liable for the wrongful acts” of the party at fault.”  Diplomat Resorts Limited Partnership.

 

Although the Fourth District’s decision in Diplomat Resorts appears to make a common law indemnification claim easier to prevail on a motion to dismiss, it is still a challenging claim to prove because it requires the party seeking indemnity to be wholly without fault. In other words, if that party is slightly at fault, there is no common law indemnity. Putting this in context, if the contractor is slightly at fault regarding installing the shower doors, it will not prevail on its common law indemnification claim.

 

In fact, the fabricator / installer in Diplomat Resorts argued that the contractor failed to properly install the glass doors for this very reason; however, there was no finding by the arbitrator that the contractor improperly installed the glass doors. Had there been a specific finding, there likely would be no common law indemnification claim because “a former adjudication against an indemnitee [e.g., contractor], finding the indemnitee’s acts to be wrongful, is binding against the indemnitee and precludes indemnification.” Diplomat Resorts Limited Partnership.

 

Notably, there are times in arbitration or litigation where parties do not want specific findings of fact. One of those is in a situation where a defendant may look to another for a common law indemnification claim (such as against a manufacturer) because that party does not want a finding that it did anything wrong that would be contradictory to its position that its liability flows 100% from the party it is pursuing the common law indemnification claim against.

 

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.

SUBCONTRACTORS – READ AND UNDERSTAND THE IMPLICATIONS OF VENUE PROVISIONS

imagesCA7D565LSubcontracts often have venue provisions. However, these are often overlooked until a dispute arises. In many instances, the venue provision requires disputes to be brought in a court in a different venue than where the project is located. This could have the adverse effect of exposing a subcontractor, in particular, to disputes in multiple forums. The recent case of East Coast Metal Decks, Inc. v. Boran Craig Barber Engel Construction Co., Inc., 38 Fla. L. Weekly D1061a (Fla. 2d DCA 2013), explains the undesirable dynamics of venue provisions.
In East Coast Metal Decks, the general contractor hired the subcontractor on two public projects in Brevard County and Sarasota County. The general contractor, however, sued the subcontractor in Collier County due to a venue provision in the subcontract. The subcontractor brought the general contractor’s payment bond surety into the fold and then tried to transfer the venue to Brevard County because the subcontractor was being sued by material suppliers in that County. The trial court denied the transfer of venue because of the Collier County venue provision in the subcontract.

 

On appeal, the Second District affirmed the trial court’s ruling. The Second District found that (i) the parties were bound by the subcontract venue provision as there was not a compelling reason not to enforce the provision and (ii) because the payment bond was a public payment issued under Florida Statute s. 255.05, venue for a claim against the bond did not have to lie in Brevard County (where the project was located).

 
What does this case mean? Well, it means that the subcontractor needs to litigate with the suppliers in Brevard County and litigate with the general contractor in Collier County even though the disputes are related. Most likely, the suppliers sued the subcontractor because they were not paid and the general contractor did not pay the subcontractor due to the facts related to the general contractor’s claim against the subcontractor in Collier County.
Litigation in different counties over a related dispute can become expensive and undesirable. It is important to understand and consider the impact of venue provisions in contracts. Sometimes, it makes sense to argue the compelling reasons why the venue provision should not be enforced. However, courts do favor venue provisions because that is what parties negotiated and agreed to on the front-end. Other times, it makes sense to resolve the smaller lawsuits or lawsuits where the facts may not be in your favor (such as a subcontractor’s lawsuit with a supplier) to focus on the lawsuit with more upside (the subcontractor’s lawsuit with the general contractor or payment bond surety).

 

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.

SUPPORTING CONSTRUCTION DEFECT DAMAGES WITH AN ESTIMATE

33758031One of the issues in construction defect disputes is whether the owner can prove damages with an estimate, which is often the case. Recently, in Kritikos v. John T. Anderson d/b/a Anderson Builders, et al., 38 Fla. L. Weekly D931a (Fla. 4th DCA 2013), the Fourth District Court of Appeals confirmed that an estimate as to the costs to repair construction defects can support a plaintiff’s (owner) damages. In other words, the plaintiff does not actually have to incur the costs to repair in order to be entitled to recover damages to correct a construction defect.

 
In this case, the contractor recorded a construction lien. The owner asserted, as a defense, that it is entitled to set-off the amount of the lien due to construction defects and delay-related damages. (The owner in this case ended up terminating the contractor when the project was substantially over budget and behind schedule.) It was the owner’s position that the defective work was subject to a design change so the measure of damages needed to be based on an estimate of what it would cost to complete the work (i.e., repair the defects) according to the original design / contract. The owner’s argument, as supported by the Fourth District, was based on precedent discussing an owner’s measure of damages when there is a construction defect, particularly the Florida Supreme Court decision of Grossman Holding Limited v. Hourihan, 414 So.2d 1037 (Fla. 1982) and the Second District Court of Appeals’ decision of Temple Beth Shalom & Jewish Center, Inc. v. Thyne Construction Corp., 399 So.2d 525 (Fla. 2d DCA 1981).  Both the cases of Grossman and Temple Beth Shalom maintain that the measure of damages when dealing with construction defects / unfinished construction contract is the reasonable cost to complete / repair per the original design / contract provided this does not result in economic waste. Kritikos, supra.

 
The key is that whether using an estimate or actual costs to support damages from a construction defect, the measure of damages is the reasonable cost to complete per the original design / contract (versus a subsequent and better design to repair the defects) provided that the repair costs do not amount to economic waste.

 
Interestingly, this case also discussed the owner’s set-off for delay damages. It is uncertain in this case whether the owner utilized any expert to establish delay damages, which is often and properly the case, or how the owner specifically presented the delay damages (as there is no discussion that there was a liquidated damages provision in the contract). The Fourth District simply stated: “Delay damages were properly presented to the jury. By their very nature, delay damages may not be subject to exact calculation, making the owner’s opinion of the value of his loss of use of his property admissible and relevant.” Kritikos, supra. Based on this limited statement, it would seem that these damages are not referring to liquidated damages or delays to the critical path of a construction schedule, but rather an owner (without any expert testimony) testifying as to “loss of use damages,” i.e., an owner testifying that due to the circumstances of the case, he/she was damaged by being not being able to utilize his residence. But, it is uncertain what the owner did to support these damages.

 

 

For more information on loss of use damages, please see: https://www.floridaconstructionlegalupdates.com/the-difference-between-lost-profit-and-loss-of-use-damages/

 

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.

 

UNDERSTANDING YOUR RIGHTS AS AN ADDITIONAL INSURED

iso-endorsement-cg-20-10-11-85Being an additional insured is a topic discussed, and it absolutely should be, in the negotiation of construction contracts. It is an important part of risk management in construction. An owner wants its contractor and consultants to name it as an additional insured under their liability policies. A contractor, likewise, wants its subcontractors, etc. to name it as an additional insured under their liability policies.

 

Let’s say a general contractor wants its window/glazing subcontractor to name it as an additional insured under the subcontractor’s commercial general liability (CGL) policy. The window subcontractor would be the primary or named insured under its CGL policy. The general contractor, smartly, wants the window subcontractor’s CGL policy to have an endorsement that identifies the general contractor as an additional insured under that policy (ideally, for both ongoing and completed operations). By adding the general contractor as an additional insured, the window subcontractor is protecting / providing coverage to the general contractor for the window subcontractor’s negligence. It is not designed to protect the general contractor for its negligence — so the general contractor will still need its own liability insurance; rather, it is again designed to provide coverage to the general contractor for the window subcontractor’s negligence.

 

Let’s also say that during the subcontractor’s operations or after, an incorrectly installed window simply fell and caused an injury to a person or damage to property other than the window. (Yes, an extreme example!) As a result of the injury / damage, both the general contractor and the window subcontractor get sued. The general contractor will seek indemnification from the window subcontractor and the subcontractor’s CGL policy as an additional insured under the subcontractor’s policy. The reason being is that the general contractor wants to be indemnified by the subcontractor and have the subcontractor’s insurer provide it a defense and coverage because the window fell out due to the subcontractor’s negligence.

 

In this situation, either the window subcontractor’s CGL insurer should provide (pay for) a defense for both the window subcontractor (named insured) and the general contractor (additional insured) subject to the insurer’s reservation of rights. This can be done by the insurer retaining counsel for both the named insured or additional insured or, which may be the case in a multi-party litigation such as a multi-party construction defect case, contributing to the general contractor’s defense.

 

Importantly, in the recent decision of University of Miami v. Great American Insurance Co., 38 Fla. Law Weekly D392a (Fla. 3d DCA 2013), the Third District maintained that where both the named insured and additional insured have been sued in negligence with allegations that both caused the injury / damage to the plaintiff, the insurer (for the named insurer) is required to provide separate defense counsel for each in order to avoid conflicts of interest with one defense counsel. This is done to ensure that the additional insured has independent counsel to represent its interests.

 
Understanding rights of an additional insured is a must for any construction project in order to maximize insurance coverage and indemnification rights.

 

 

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.

 

CGL POLICIES AND THE IMPORTANCE OF COUCHING THE CLAIM TO THE INSURER

UnknownContractors and subcontractors that work on construction projects should, and generally do, maintain commercial general liability policies (“CGL Policies”).  Owners absolutely want their contractor and the subcontractors to be sufficiently insured in the event a claim is made either against them or damages or defects occur to their project.  Likewise, the contractor wants its subcontractors to be sufficiently insured for the same reasons.   Contractors and subcontractors, jointly, want CGL Policies so that if a claim is made or they are sued the insurer defends their interests and, hopefully, pays insurance proceeds to resolve the claim.

 

Insurers, however, are not always keen on paying claims and rely on various exclusions in policies that are applicable to the circumstances of the claim.  In other words, if there is no coverage for the claim based on an exclusion, the insurer will appropriately rely on an exclusion in the CGL policy.  As it pertains to CGL Policies, there are two important exclusions insurers rely on when a claim is asserted against a contractor or subcontractor for construction defects.  These exclusions are known as the j(5) and J(6) exclusions and exclude damage to:

 

j(5)   That particular part of real property on which you…are performing operations, if the property damage arises out of those operations; or

 

j(6)   That particular part of any property that must be restored, repaired or replaced because your work was incorrectly performed on it.

 

A contractor or subcontractor that reviews their CGL Policies will find the j(5) and j(6) exclusions to be substantially similar to the above.  While contractors typically do not self-perform work, subcontractors typically do  self-perform all or a substantial part of the work.

 

A recent case, Wilshire Insurance Co. v. Birch Crest Apartments, Inc., 2011 WL 3586228 (4th DCA 2011), bolsters insurers’ arguments to exclude coverage under a self-performing subcontractor’s  CGL Policy under the (j)5 and j(6) exclusions.  In this case, a painter performing work on an apartment project spattered paint on glass doors and windows.  The painter tried to remove the paint spatter, and in the process of doing so, damaged the glass doors and windows.  The owner sued the painter and the painter consented to a judgment and assigned its rights under its CGL Policy to the owner. This allowed the owner to sue the insurer directly and assert certain claims against it.

 

The issue in this case was whether the painter’s damage to the glass windows and doors were covered under the policy, or, conversely, whether coverage was excluded pursuant to the j(5) and j(6) exclusions under the policy.  The Fourth District Court of Appeal held that these exclusions barred coverage for all of the owner’s damages:

 

“[T]he record here shows that cleaning paint spatter from windows and doors was within the natural and intended scope of work undertaken by the contractor as part of the painting operations on Birch’s [owner] property if in fact such paint spatter occurred.

***

[T]he scope of the contractor’s operations were intended to include the apartments which were being painted and would, if required, involve cleaning up surfaces which were spattered with paint.  There is no genuine issue of material fact that the property damage in this case was to the apartment upon which H&H [painter] was performing its operations, and that it arose out of the insured’s operations within the meaning of (j)5Additionally, there is no genuine issue of material fact that the underlying claim resulted from the insured’s incorrect work on the glass doors and windows of the apartments within the meaning of exclusion j(6).

Wilshire Insurance Company, 2011 WL at *2.

 

In this case, it appears that the owner hired the painter directly and that the painter self-performed the work.  This is noteworthy because had the owner hired the general contractor and the general contractor hired the painter, or had the painter hired sub-subcontractors to perform all of its work, there could have been certain arguments raised to maximize insurance coverage.  These arguments, however, will not be discussed in this specific post.  What is also noteworthy is that the Fourth District focused on what fell within the “natural and intended scope of work” of the self-performing painter.  Since the damage or activity of cleaning up paint on glass fell within the natural and intended scope of the painter’s work, the Fourth District found that the painter essentially damaged  property it was performing work on (the j(5) exclusion)  and, thus, required repairs to the painter’s own work (the j(6) exclusion).

 

It is imperative that when an owner, etc. submits a claim to a contractor or subcontractor’s CGL Policy, the owner consults with a lawyer in furtherance of couching the claim to optimize insurance recovery.  Furthermore, and equally important, when a contractor or subcontractor receives a claim, especially a claim for defects or damage, that they too should consult with a lawyer to best present the claim to optimize the insurer protecting their interests and paying proceeds to resolve the claim.

  

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.