NEGLIGENT INSPECTION CLAIM AGAINST SUPERVISING DESIGN PROFESSIONAL / CONSULTANT

Can a negligence argument be created against consulting design professionals or entities that are involved in the inspection of a trade’s work?  The recent opinion in Bautech USA, Inc. v. Resolve Equipment, Inc., 2023 WL 4186395 (S.D.Fla. 2023) contains an interesting fact pattern that touches upon this issue. While the case dealt with a motion to dismiss, it contains a number of issues that may be discussed in follow-up postings.

Here, a prime contractor was hired by Broward County, Florida to install offshore reef mitigation units.  The contractor entered into a subcontract with a concrete fabricator to fabricate the reef mitigation units. The contractor also separately hired consultants to inspect the units. The contractor and its consultants rejected the units even after the fabricator implemented design revisions.  The fabricator was then terminated and not paid for contract work plus revisions it implemented to finished units. The fabricator sued the contractor and the contractor’s consultants for non-payment under many (ten) different theories of liability claiming it was damaged to the tune of millions of dollars.

In one claim, the fabricator asserted the consultants along with the contractor’s parent entity (that had involvement in the project) were negligent in their inspection of the fabricated units. The contractor and consultants moved to dismiss the negligent inspection claim under the independent tort doctrine and because they argued they did not owe a duty of care to support a negligence claim. The trial court denied this argument. The grounds in which the trial court denied these arguments are important because these grounds create strategic considerations when asserting a negligent claim for economic damages under a negligent inspection theory or negligence theory that the supervising consultants breached their duty of care.

A. Independent Tort Doctrine

With respect to the argument the independent tort doctrine barred the negligent inspection claim, the trial court denied this argument because there wasn’t a contract between the parties, expressing:

To start, the independent tort doctrine does not bar [the fabricator’s] negligence claim against [contractor’s parent entity]. Under Florida law, “a breach of contract, alone, cannot constitute a cause of action in tort….It is only when the breach of contract is attended by some additional conductwhich amounts to an independent tort that such breach can constitute negligence.” To apply, “the [independent tort] doctrine requires contractualprivity between the parties.” Because [fabricator] does not allege that a contract exists between it and [the contractor’s parent entity], the independent tort doctrine is inapplicable and certainly does not bar a tort claim against this Defendant.

Bautech, USA, supra, at *4 (internal citations omitted).

B. Duty of Care

With respect to the argument the Defendants (contractor’s parent entity and consultants) did not owe a duty of care, the trial court denied this argument expressing:

Next, [the fabricator] has identified a source for [the contractor’s parent’s entity] duty in tort — it is the same theory as for [the contractor’s consultants]. [Fabricator] alleges [contractor’s consultants], “each acting as agent/consultants for the County, owed [Plaintiff] a duty, as subcontractorand direct manufacturer of the [u]nits, to fairly, truthfully and properly report the status of the [p]roject to the County and others, in accordance withthe requisite standard of care required by the law.” [Fabricator] then alleges that because [contractor’s parent entity] “also provided personnel forthe inspection of the [u]nits[,]” it “owed the same duties” to [Fabricator] as [the contractor’s consultants].

Bautech, USA, supra, at *5 (internal citations omitted).

Defendants argued they owe no duty of care to inspect as such duty of care is ONLY owed by supervising design professionals, which none of them are, and this duty nevertheless does not extend to subcontractors: “Defendants argue that [fabricator] cannot state of a claim for negligent inspection because Florida appellate courts have declined to extend supervising professionals’ tort duty to subcontractors.” Bautech, USA, at *5.  The trial court denied this argument because the precedent relied on by Defendants was a 1993 Florida Supreme Court case that has been overruled and the other case relied on was actually consistent with Florida’s Supreme Court’s leading 1973 opinion dealing with negligence claims against supervising design professionals, A.R. Moyer, Inc. v. Graham, 285 So.2d 397 (Fla. 1973), by considering numerous factors to determine whether such a duty of care by a supervising design professional exists.

In fact, to find a duty under Moyer, “the core issue is the extent to which the Defendant[s] supervised the Plaintiff or had sufficient control over [its] work to be able to exercise ‘economic life or death’ over the Plaintiff[,]” rather than a myopic focus on an individual’s job title. Here, the Amended Complaint indicates [Defendants] had supervisory control over [fabricator] because these Defendants “unfairly and in bad faith rejected completed [u]nits that conformed entirely to the Subcontract requirements, often for noncontractual and non-material issues.” Moreover, [fabricator] alleges the three Defendants were closely involved in the manufacturing process. This is minimally sufficient to plead that [Defendants] owed a duty to [fabricator] as supervising engineers.

Bautech, USA, supra, at *6 (internal citations omitted).

If asserting a negligent inspection claim or negligence claim against design professionals / consultants, keep the A.R. Moyer case (cited above) in mind. Also, keep this opinion in mind to plead and support the negligence claim demonstrating the duty of care that must exist to support such a negligence theory.

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.

NONDELEGABLE DUTY OF CARE OWED TO THIRD PERSONS

Although a personal injury case, the recent opinion in Garcia v. Southern Cleaning Service, Inc., 48 Fla.L.Weekly D977a (Fla. 1stDCA 2023) raises an interesting issue regarding nondelegable duties owed to third persons applicable in negligence actions.  Remember, in order for there to be a negligence claim, the defendant MUST owe a duty of care to the plaintiff.  No duty, no negligence claim.

What if a defendant’s duty was delegated to, say, an independent contractor?

[A] party that hires an independent contractor may be liable for the contractor’s negligence where a nondelegable duty is involved. Such a duty may be imposed by statute, contract, or the common law. In determining whether a duty is nondelegable, the question is whether the responsibility at issue is so important to the community that an employer should not be allowed to transfer it to a third party.

Garcia, supra, (internal citations omitted).

In Garcia, a supermarket hired a company to provide floor cleaning and janitorial services.  The company subcontracted the work to an independent contractor. The plaintiff, an employee of the supermarket, fell at the supermarket and sued the cleaning company in negligence claiming the cleaning company “breached its duty of care to warn [the supermaket’s] employees and invitees of the unreasonably slippery floors that caused here injuries.” Garcia, supra.  The cleaning company moved for summary judgment claiming it is not liable for the acts of its independent contractor.  Thus, the fundamental question is whether the duty of care of the cleaning company was a nondelegable duty that could not be transferred to an independent contractor.

The trial court found the duty of care was NOT a nondelegable duty meaning it could be transferred to the independent contractor.  In this case, the cleaning company could not be liable in negligence because it owed no duty to the plaintiff (as that duty was transferred). The First District Court of Appeal affirmed, “[W]e hold that [the cleaning company’s] contract with [the supermarket] did not create a nondelegable duty on [the cleaning company’s] part to [the plaintiff], a non-party to the contract. As such, the trial court properly granted summary judgment as to this issue.”

In affirming, the First District relied on the Third District Court of Appeal’s opinion in Carrasquillo v. Holiday Carpet Service, Inc., 615 So.2d 862 (Fla. 3d DCA 1993), which stands for the proposition that the “‘mere existence of a contract does not create vicarious liability as to third persons for the negligence acts of the independent contractor.’” Garcia, supra, quoting Carrasquillo.  In other words, the contract, in of itself, does not create a nondelegable duty of care to third persons not a party to the contract.

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.

FLORIDA’S NEW CIVIL REMEDIES ACT – BULLETPOINTS AS TO HOW IT IMPACTS CONSTRUCTION

There has been much talk about Florida’s new Civil Remedies Act (House Bill 837) that Governor DeSantis approved on March 24, 2023.  As it pertains to construction, here is how I see it with key bulletpoints on the impact this new Act has on the construction industry:

  • New Florida Statute s. 86.121– This is an attorney’s fees statute for declaratory relief actions to the prevailing insured to determine insurance coverage after TOTAL COVERAGE DENIAL. (Note: A defense offered pursuant to a reservation of rights is not a total coverage denial.) This right only belongs to the insured and cannot be transferred or assigned. And the parties are entitled to the summary procedure set forth in Florida Statute s. 51.011 requiring the court to advance the cause on the calendar. The new statute does say it does NOT apply to any action arising under a residential or commercial property insurance policy. (Thus, since builder’s risk coverage is a form of property insurance, the strong presumption is this new statute would not apply to it.)  Rather, the recent changes to Florida Statute s. 626.9373 would apply which provides, “In any suit arising under a residential or commercial property insurance policy, there is no right to attorney fees under this section.”
  • Florida Statute s. 95.11 – The statute of limitations for negligence causes of action are two years instead of four years. This applies to “causes of action accruing after the effective date of this act.”
  • Florida Statute s. 624.155 – Adds language relative to bad faith insurance claims including bad faith claims asserted under the common law.
  • Florida Statute 768.81 – Includes a greater percentage of fault section in the comparative negligence statute  that states, “In a negligence action to which this section applies, any party found to be greater than 50 percent at fault for his or her own harm may not recover any damages. This subsection does not apply to an action for damages for personal injury or wrongful death arising out of medical negligence pursuant to chapter 766.
  • Florida Statute s.  627.428– This statute was repealed. This was the attorney’s fees statute for insurance disputes.
  • Florida Statute s. 627.756 – This modified the language in this statute but still provides in a suit by an owner, contractor, a subcontractor, a laborer, or materialman against a surety under a payment or performance bond, if the claimant prevails, it can recover reasonable attorney’s fees for prosecuting the suit.
  • “This act shall not be construed to impair any right under an insurance contract in effect on or before the effective date of this act. To the extent that this act affects a right under an insurance contract, this act applies to an insurance contract issued or renewed after the effective date of this act.”

Please feel free to reach out to me if you view this Act differently.

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.

SUBSEQUENT PURCHASER CAN ASSERT CLAIMS FOR CONSTRUCTION DEFECTS

Can a subsequent purchaser pursue construction defect claims relating to the original construction of the property?  This was the threshold issue on a motion for summary judgment by a drywall manufacturer against a subsequent purchaser of a home in Karpel v. Knauf Gips KG, 2022 WL 4366946 (S.D. Fla. 2022).  This matter deals with the defective Chinese drywall that was installed in homes years ago.  The plaintiffs, which were subsequent purchasers of a home, sued the manufacturer of the defective drywall for various theories including negligence, negligence per se, strict liability, breach of express and/or implied warranty, private nuisance, unjust enrichment, and Florida’s Deceptive and Unfair Trade Practices Act.

The trial court noted, from the onset, that Florida does NOT have a subsequent purchaser rule that prohibits subsequent purchasers from asserting construction defect claims. With this consideration in mind, the trial court went through the claims the plaintiff, as a subsequent purchaser, asserted against the manufacturer to determine whether they were viable claims as a matter of law.

Negligence Claim

The trial court found that a subsequent purchaser could sue in negligence.  “Florida courts have long allowed subsequent purchasers to sue for negligence including in construction defect litigation.”  Karpel, supra, at *2.

Negligence Per Se and Strict Liability Claims

The trial court held that the plaintiff’s negligence per se and strict liability claims were duplicative. Both could not stand; for this reason, the court entered summary judgment as to the duplicative negligence per se claim. “Strict liability means negligence as a matter of law or negligence per se, the effect of which is to remove the burden from the user of proving specific acts of negligence.Karpel, supra, at *3 (quotation and citation omitted).

A subsequent purchaser could pursue a strict liability claim against a manufacturer.  “[A] manufacturer is strictly liable in tort when an article he places on the market, knowing that it is to be used without inspection for defects, proves to have a defect that causes injury to a human being.”  Karpel, supra, at *4 (quotation and citation omitted).

Even Section 402A of the Second Restatement of Torts, adopted by Florida’s Supreme Court, provides: “(1) One who sells any product in a defective condition unreasonably dangerous to the user or consumer or to his property is subject to liability for physical harm caused to the ultimate user or consumer, or to his property, if (a) the seller is engaged in the business of selling such product, and (b) it is expected to and does reach the user or consumer without substantial change in the condition in which it is sold.” Karpel, supra, at *4.

There are, however, limits on strict liability.

First, Florida disallows recovery in tort where plaintiffs only claim economic losses such as ‘damages for inadequate value, costs of repair, and replacement of the defective product, or consequent loss of profits—without any claim of personal injury or damage to other property.Karpel, supra, at *4 (citation omitted).

Second, Florida courts will disallow recovery for strict liability where the purchaser was subject to the common law doctrine of caveat emptor.”  Karpel, supra, at *4.

Thus, a subsequent purchaser’s strict liability claim could be pursued against a manufacturer provided such damages are not barred by the economic loss rule or the doctrine of caveat emptor (which applies to commercial property and property purchased at judicial auction sales).  Karpel, supra, at *4.

Breach of Implied Warranty

The trial court found that a subsequent purchaser could NOT sue a manufacturer for breach of implied warranty.  “[I]t is abundantly clear that in cases like these, where no contractual relationship between a subsequent purchaser and a manufacturer exists, the former’s recourse is a claim for strict liability.Karpel, supra, at *4.

Breach of Express Warranty

While a contractual relationship is typically required for breach of express warranty, this requirement is relaxed if the express warranty is intended to benefit subsequent purchasers.  “A manufacturer’s liability for breach of an express warranty derives from, and is measured by, the terms of that warranty.”  Karpel, supra, at *4 (quotations and citation omitted).  However, in this case, plaintiff’s breach of express warranty claim failed because the plaintiff never introduced any express warranty into the record.

Private Nuisance

The trial court held that the subsequent purchaser could NOT pursue a private nuisance claim against the manufacturer.   To sustain a private nuisance claim, the plaintiff must prove that the defendant’s maintenance of the nuisance was the proximate cause of the plaintiff’s damages.  Karpel, supra, at *8.  “The Plaintiffs’ ownership and current control over the drywall conclusively forecloses them from arguing that the Defendants actively “maintain” the ‘nuisance’ they complain of.”  Id.

Unjust Enrichment

The trial court held that the subsequent purchaser could NOT pursue an unjust enrichment claim against the manufacturer.  An unjust enrichment claim requires the plaintiff to prove that the plaintiff conferred a direct benefit on the defendant. “The Plaintiffs conferred no direct benefit on the Defendant.” Karpel, supra, at *8 (finding that plaintiffs, as subsequent purchasers, obtained their homes from previous owners so the plaintiffs conferred no direct financial benefit on the manufacturer).

Florida’s Deceptive and Unfair Trade Practices Act (FDUTPA)

The trial court found that a subsequent purchaser could theortetically pursue a FDUTPA claim. “Because the law is clear that a plaintiff need not have actually relied on the purported deceptive or unfair practice, the Court’s analysis need not go further….The Plaintiffs’ status as subsequent purchasers does not foreclose them from arguing that the Defendants’ practices violated FDUTPA.”  Karpel, supra, at *9.

However, the trial court noted that actual damages under FDUTPA may implicate the economic loss rule because actual damages under the statute “are the difference in the market value of the product or service in the condition in which it was delivered and its market value in the condition in which it should have been delivered according to the contract of the parties.”  Karpel, supra, at *9 (quotation and citation omitted). For this reason, the court ordered the plaintiff and defendant to submit supplemental briefing because if the economic loss rule is implicated, the FDUTPA claim will fail (due to the same limitations relating to the strict liability 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.

 

PRIVATE STATUTORY CAUSE OF ACTION UNDER FLORIDA’S UNDERGROUND FACILITY DAMAGE PREVENTION AND SAFETY ACT

Florida’s Underground Facility Damage Prevention and Safety Act is set forth in Florida Statutes Chapter 556.  Any owner or operator of underground infrastructure as well as contractors that perform underground excavation and demolition operations are familiar (or, need to be familiar) with this Act and the requirements it imposes on them.

In a nutshell, this Act requires excavators to notify operators of underground facilities (e.g., pipelines, cables, sewers) through a notification system before excavating or demolishing an underground location.  Then notification system gives the operator of the underground facility two days’ advance notice that an excavation will be taking place.  After receiving this notice, the operator of the underground facility must mark the area where its infrastructure is located which could be affected by the underground excavation or demolition operations.  The Act further imposes duties on excavators to use increased caution, supervise mechanized equipment, perform excavation and demolition operations in a careful an prudent manner, and to re-notify the notification system if the operator’s marking is no longer visible so the location of the operator’s underground facility can be re-marked.

The Florida Supreme Court in Peoples Gas System v. Posen Construction, Inc., 46 Fla.L.Weekly S166b (Fla. 2021) recently analyzed whether the Act creates a private statutory cause of action.  This case dealt with a road contractor that ruptured an underground gas pipeline during an excavation.  The rupture caused an explosion that injured an employee of the road contractor.  A dispute arose between the operator of the underground gas line and the road contractor with the operator of the gas line claiming the excavator’s advance notification was deficient.  The injured employee sued the operator of the underground gas line and the operator settled with the employee.  The operator then sued the road contractor  to recover the amount of the settlement claiming it should be entitled to recover the settlement payment as damages under the Act or for “statutory indemnity.”  The issue was whether the Act provides any such private statutory cause of action.  The Florida Supreme Court held it does create a private statutory cause of action for violations sounding in negligence, but not for “statutory indemnity”:

(1) that the Underground Facility Damage Prevention and Safety Act creates a standalone cause of action; (2) that the cause of action sounds in negligence; (3) that liability under the Act is subject to proof of proximate causation [i.e., the defendant’s negligence needs to be the proximate cause of the plaintiff’s injury] and to the defense of comparative fault  [i.e., a party is liable for the damages they caused per Florida Statute s. 768.81]; (4) that “losses” recoverable under the Act can include purely economic damages, independent of personal injury or property damage; and (5) that the Act does not create a cause of action for “statutory indemnity.

Peoples Gas System, supra.

This decision that the Act creates a negligence-based cause of action  is supported by Florida Statute s. 556.106(2)(a) and (b) contained in the Act that discusses liability for violations of the Act.

It is uncertain what doors will be opened by this Florida Supreme Court decision.  However, what is clear is that a negligence-based statutory cause of action can be asserted for violations of the Act and the damages can include economic damages that have nothing to do with personal injury or property damage.

 

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.

 

ECONOMIC LOSS RULE BARS CLAIMS AGAINST MANUFACTURER

The economic loss rule lives to bar a claim against a product manufacturer in a real estate transaction.  In a products liability action, there needs to be personal injury or property damage, other than to the property itself, in order to recover economic damages.  Otherwise, the economic loss rule will bar the recovery of such economic losses when the economic losses deal to the product itself.  This is important to keep in mind in any product liability action against a manufacturer.

In a recent case, 2711 Hollywood Beach Condominium Ass’n, Inc., v. TRG Holiday, Ltd., 45 Fla. L. Weekly D2179a (Fla. 3d DCA 2020), a condominium association purchased the condominium from the developer.  Subsequently, it noticed leaks with the fire suppression system in the condominium and sued multiple parties for damages for repairs due to the leaks and the replacement of the fire suppression system.  One of the parties sued in negligence and strict liability was a manufacturer of pipe fittings used in the fire suppression system.  The manufacturer moved for summary judgment based on the economic loss rule and relying on the 1993 Florida Supreme Court opinion in Casa Clara Condominium Ass’n v. Charley Toppino & Sons, Inc., 620 So.2d 1244 (Fla. 1993), holding “the economic loss rule limited a defendant’s tort liability for allegedly defective products to injuries caused to persons or damage caused to property other than the defective product itself.”  2711 Hollywood Beach Conominium Ass’n, supra.  The trial court agreed with the manufacturer and granted summary judgment.  On appeal, the Third District affirmed based on the economic loss rule:

The Association bargained for, purchased and received a building; [the manufactuer’s] fittings were only a component of the FSS [fire suppression system], incorporated into the building. Applying the rule set forth in Casa Clara, the Association purchased a completed building from the developer. [The manufactuer’s] fittings were “an integral part of the finished product and, thus, did not injure ‘other’ property.”  Injury to the building itself is not injury to “other” property because the product purchased by the Association was the buildingSee Casa Clara, 620 So. 2d at 1247. The economic loss rule therefore bars the Association’s recovery as to [the manufacturer] to the extent that it sought damages to replace the FSS [fire suppression system] and repair damage to the building.

2711 Hollywood Beach Conominium Ass’n, supra (internal citations omitted).

Notably, in Casa Clara, homeowners sued a concrete supplier for supplying defective concrete that caused the reinforcing steel in the concrete in their homes to rust.  The concrete supplier, in an action that went up to the Florida Supreme Court, prevailed based on the economic loss rule because there was no personal injury or damage to property other than the property itself, which was the completed building.  As the Florida Supreme Court held:

The homeowners also argue that [the supplier’s] concrete damaged “other” property because the individual components and items of building material, not the homes themselves, are the products they purchased. We disagree. The character of a loss determines the appropriate remedies, and, to determine the character of a loss, one must look to the product purchased by the plaintiff, not the product sold by the defendant.  Generally, house buyers have little or no interest in how or where the individual components of a house are obtained. They are content to let the builder produce the finished product, i.e., a house. These homeowners bought finished products—dwellings—not the individual components of those dwellings. They bargained for the finished products, not their various components. The concrete became an integral part of the finished product and, thus, did not injure “other” property.

We also disagree with the homeowners that the mere possibility that the exploding concrete will cause physical injury is sufficient reason to abrogate the economic loss rule. This argument goes completely against the principle that injury must occur before a negligence action exists. Because an injury has not occurred, its extent and the identity of injured persons is completely speculative. Thus, the degree of risk is indeterminate, with no guarantee that damages will be reasonably related to the risk of injury, and with no possibility for the producer of a product to structure its business behavior to cover that risk. Agreeing with the homeowners’ argument would make it difficult “to maintain a realistic limitation on damages.”

Casa Clara, supra, at 1247 (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.

 

COMPARATIVE FAULT APPLIED IN OWNER’S LAWSUIT AGAINST CONTRACTOR AND ENGINEER

There is nothing like a good old-fashioned dispute between an owner and its general contractor and design professional relating to construction and design defects where both parties have a role in the owner’s damages.  There are arguments that both the general contractor and design professional substantially contributed to the defects and damages.  Are the contractor and design professional jointly and severally liable for the owner’s damages?  Or, does comparative fault apply where the trial of fact allocates the contractor’s and engineer’s percentage of fault for the defects and damage?    A recent case found that comparative fault applied such that the trier of fact, in this case the judge, could allocate damages based the judge’s finding of the parties’ percentage of fault.  (For more information in comparative fault, please check this article.).  Comparative fault is not what an owner ideally wants because joint and several liability would be preferred.  However, this is what the contractor and engineer would want since their liability for damages is predicated on their percentage of responsibility as opposed to being liable for all of the damages.

In Broward County, Florida v. CH2M Hill, Inc., 45 Fla. L. Weekly D1736a (Fla. 4th DCA 2020), a public owner hired an engineer for airport improvements that included a taxiway to be designed and constructed in accordance with the Federal Aviation Administration’s design requirements.   The public owner also hired (i) a program manager to serve as its on-site representative and (ii) a separate engineering firm to provide materials testing and inspection services.  The public owner also hired a contractor to construct the taxiway.

Prior to substantial completion of the taxiway, the public owner discovered indentations in the surface of the taxiway (referred to as rutting).  This discovery prompted the public owner to investigate.  The public owner directed the contractor to mill away two inches of asphalt and install new asphalt.   The contractor achieved substantial completion in September 2008 and final completion in November 2008.  The contractor then submitted its final payment application to the public owner.  The public owner notified the contractor that it would retain money to deal with repairs associated with the indentations in the surface of the taxiway.  The public owner hired a new engineer to design the repairs.  The repair design was more robust (better) than the original engineer’s design because the repair engineer believed the new design was necessary to achieve a 20-year lifespan for the taxiway. A new contractor performed the repairs.

The contractor sued the public owner for nonpayment.  The contractor also sued the engineer for professional negligence in the design of the taxiway.    The pubic owner counter-sued the contractor for breach of contract and sued the engineer for breach of contract and indemnification.  The public owner asserted that the contractor performed defective construction and the engineer committed errors, omissions, and defects in the design and was obligated to indemnify the public owner for liability arising out of the design.  The public owner also sued its program manager (on-site representative) and testing engineer; these two parties settled prior to trial.

At trial, the public owner’s expert testified that both the contractor and engineer contributed to the indentations in the surface of the taxiway.  The expert testified that the engineer’s design deviated from the Federal Aviation Administration’s requirements and was doomed to fail such that if the contractor complied with the design, it would still fail.  The expert further testified that while the contractor contributed to the indentations as it failed to construct subgrade per the engineer’s design, it was to a lesser contributing factor than the engineer.

The engineer’s expert testified that the indentations were caused by undercompaction performed by the contractor.  The expert further testified that the public owner’s program manager violated its standard of care by allowing the contractor to deviate from the engineer’s original design in numerous ways.

The contractor’s expert testified that the indentations were caused by the design and undercompaction.

The trial court found that both the engineer and the contractor’s breaches were the proximate cause of the redesign of the taxiway.  The trial court also found that the public owner’s program manager, which had settled prior to trial, was also liable.  The trial court further found that public owner’s total damages were $6,2703,303 of which $725,000 was paid to the public owner pre-suit by the program manager and testing engineer.  After deducting this amount from the total damages, the trial court allocated damages as follows: (1) 60% was allocated to the non-party program manager (that had settled pre-suit); (2) 25% was allocated to the contractor; and (3) 15% was allocated to the engineer.   The public owner appealed the allocation in the final judgment.  The public owner argued that the trial court should not have apportioned liability at all because comparative fault does not apply in breach of contract cases.  Instead, the public owner contended that the trial court should have found that the engineer and contractor were jointly and severally liable for the damage (indentations) because their separate contractual breaches caused a single, indivisible injury.

The Fourth District Court of Appeal disagreed with the public owner concluding that Florida Statute s. 768.81 dealing with comparative fault authorized the trial court to allocate fault.  While comparative fault under s. 768.81 deals with negligence actions, it defines a negligence action as a “civil action for damages based upon a theory of negligence, strict liability, products liability, professional malpractice whether couched in terms of contract or tort, or breach of warranty and like theories. The substance of an action, not conclusory terms used by a party, determines whether an action is a negligence action.”  Broward County, Florida, supra, quoting Fla. Stat. s. 768.81.

The public owner’s claim against the professional engineer was predicated on the engineer breaching a contractual standard of care that required it to design the taxiway pursuant to the Federal Aviation Administration’s standards.  Although the public owner’s claims against the engineer were couched as a breach of contract, it was based on a theory of professional negligence (violation of a standard of care) warranting the application of comparative fault.

However, the public owner’s claims against the contractor were not based on a professional negligence theory.  Nonetheless, the Fourth District held that comparative fault did apply:

Applying a holistic approach to analyzing the complaint, we conclude that the contract action against [the contractor] fell under the umbrellas of the ‘negligence action’ against [the engineer], so that the circuit court’s allocation of fault was appropriate.  After all, [the contractor] was to perform the contract according to specifications designed by [the engineer], so the causes of action against each were necessarily intertwined.  To prove its case against [the contractor], the public owner was required to prove that [the contractor’s] ‘breach of its contractual responsibilities was a substantial factor in causing the [public owner’s] extensive damages.’   This is compatible with the concept of ‘fault’…and parallels the tort notion of a violation of a duty of care that is the proximate cause of damages.  Based on the evidence, the circuit court properly allocated fault among all actors whose conduct substantially contributed to the [public owner’s] 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.

 

EXISTENCE OF “DUTY” IN NEGLIGENCE ACTION IS QUESTION OF LAW

shutterstock_523440886In a negligence action, the issue of whether a duty applies is a question of lawSee Limones v. School Dist. of Lee County, 161 So.3d 384, 389 (Fla. 2015) (“[T]he existence of a duty is a legal question because duty is the standard to which the jury compares the conduct of the defendant.”); McCain v. Florida Power Corp., 593 So.2d 500, 502 (Fla. 1992) (“Since duty is a question of law, an appellate court obviously could reverse based on its purely legal conclusion that no such duty existed.”).  Thus, the trial court determines, as a matter of law, whether a legal duty of care applies in a negligence action.

 

Florida law recognizes the following four sources of duty: (1) statutes or regulations; (2) common law interpretations of those statutes or regulations; (3) other sources in the common law; and (4) the general facts of the case.  

See id.  

 

Oftentimes it is the fourth source – the general facts of the case – that comes into play to determine whether the defendant owed the plaintiff a duty of care.  

 

To determine whether a defendant owed the plaintiff a duty under the general facts of the case, the issue becomes “whether the defendant’s conduct foreseeably created a broader ‘zone of risk’ that poses a general threat of harm to others.”  McCain, 593 So.2d at 502.  

 

For example, in White v. Ring Power Corp., a personal injury case discussed here regarding an expert’s qualifications, the trial court granted summary judgment (as a matter of law) finding that the lessor of a crane did NOT owe the plaintiff a duty to download certain crane overload data before renting the crane to the lessee.  The appellate court affirmed because nothing in the record established that the failure to download such data by the lessor before renting the crane created a broader zone of risk to the plaintiff.

 

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.

UNDERTAKER’S DOCTRINE IN NEGLIGENCE CLAIMS — NO GOOD DEED GOES UNPUNISHED?

shutterstock_1035445624There are many times the old adage, “No good deed goes unpunished,” rings true.  At one point in time, or more likely many points in time, we have all felt this why.  We undertook a good deed only to feel unappreciated or the good deed backfires.

 

In Florida, there is a legal doctrine known as the undertaker’s doctrine.   Just the name of the doctrine has a morbid undertone, right?  This doctrine applies in negligence scenarios because it establishes a duty that the undertaker owes to another, even if he undertook a service because he is a swell guy.  This undertaker’s doctrine has been described as follows:

 

Whenever one undertakes to provide a service to others, whether one does so gratuitously or by contract, the individual who undertakes to provide the service — i.e., the ‘undertaker’ — thereby assumes a duty to act carefully and to not put others at an undue risk of harm.  The undertaker is subject to liability if: (a) he or she fails to exercise reasonable care, which results in increased harm to the beneficiary; or (b) the beneficiary relies upon the undertaker and is harmed as a result.

 

Muchnick v. Goihman, 43 Fla.L.Weekly D986b (Fla. 3d DCA 2018 (internal citations and quotations omitted). 

 

An example of the application of the undertaker’s doctrine can be found in Muchnick where the appellate court held former tenants could assert a negligence claim against their real estate rental agent.   In this case, a real estate agent knew a family looking to rent another high-end apartment because they lived in the same building.  He worked for a real estate brokerage firm and he approached the family about renting another unit in the same building.  During the walk through of that unit, there were items the family wanted repaired and the agent assured the family they would be addressed prior to the family moving in.  The family rented the apartment and the brokerage firm was listed as the broker for the transaction.

 

When the family moved into the unit, the items they wanted repaired were not.  And, to make matters worse, the family discovered a serious water intrusion and damage problem that resulted in mold getting into to the apartment’s ventilation system.  The family communicated predominantly with the real estate agent regarding the issues as the owner of the unit lived abroad and the agent lived in the building.  During a deposition, the father claimed that the agent told him that since he lived in the same building he would be the go-to-guy to address any issues with the apartment and undertake repairs.  The issues did not get resolved which impacted the children’s health and they were forced to terminate the lease early and relocate.

 

Initially, the real estate agent argued that his firm, and not him personally, should have been sued, because he was acting in the scope of his employment as a real estate agent in dealing with the family.  The appellate court rejected this argument stating:

 

[J]ust because Goihman [agent] was acting in the scope of his employment when he rented the apartment, promised to fix it, and managed the repairs, doesn’t mean that he was shielded from personal liability under all circumstances.   [O]fficers or agents of corporations may be individually liable in tort if they commit or participate in a tort, even if their acts are within the course and scope of their employment. All that needs to be alleged is that the agent or officer personally participated in the tort, even if the complained of action was because of and entirely within the scope of his or her employment.

 

Muchnick, supra (internal citations and quotations omitted).

 

Next, the real estate agent argued that since he did not own the apartment unit, he did not owe a duty to the family that was renting the unit to fix and manage the repairs.  The appellate court rejected this argument too…because of the undertaker’s doctrine.  Once the real estate agent volunteered, even if gratuitously, to fix the problems and manage the repairs, he assumed a duty to exercise reasonable care in performing those services.  

 

It is great to be a swell guy.  But, when you agree to undertake a service, even if that service is nothing but a good deed you are performing, you have a duty to use reasonable care in performing that service to prevent harm to the beneficiary of that service.

 

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.

 

THERE ARE TIMES AN EQUITABLE SUBROGATION CLAIM IS THE MOST PRACTICAL RECOURSE FOR REIMBURSEMENT

shutterstock_627721505Equitable subrogation is a claim that can be pursued when a party (referred to as the subrogee) pays for damages to protect its interest–perhaps to mitigate its own exposure–seeks reimbursement from another party primarily liable for the damages.  There are times a party seeking reimbursement for purely economic losses is best able to pursue an equitable subrogation claim, as opposed to a common law indemnification or negligence claim.

 

Equitable subrogation is generally appropriate where: (1) the subrogee made the payment to protect [its] own interest, (2) the subrogee did not act as a volunteer, (3) the subrogee was not primarily liable for the debt, (4) the subrogee paid off the entire debt, and (5) subrogation would not work any injustice to the rights of a third party.

Tank Tech, Inc. v. Valley Tank Testing, L.L.C., 43 Fla.L.Weekly D868a (Fla. 2d DCA 2018) quoting Dade Cty. Sch. Bd. v. Radio Station WQBA, 731 So.2d 638, 646 (Fla. 1999).

 

Equitable subrogation is not dependent on a contract—it is simply an “equitable remedy for restitution to one [the subrogee] who in the performance of some duty has discharged a legal obligation which should have been met, either wholly or partially, by another.”  Tank Tech, Inc., supra, quoting W. Am. Ins. Co. v. Yellow Cab Co. of Orlando, Inc., 495 So.2d 204, 206 (Fla. 5th DCA 1986).

 

As shown in the recent decision below, there are times an equitable subrogation claim will generate more traction for purposes of a reimbursement claim than a negligence claim or common law indemnification claim, because an equitable subrogation claim does not require the party seeking reimbursement to show a duty is owed to it by the party it is seeking reimbursement from.

  

The recent decision of Tank Tech, Inc. involved damage to underground petroleum storage tanks at Circle K locations.  Company “A,” the subrogee, had been hired by Circle K to retrofit existing tanks by adding an interior wall inside of the tanks.  Company “B” was separately hired by Circle K to test the interstitial space between the new interior wall installed by Company “A” and the existing tank wall.  There was no contractual relationship between Company “A” and Company “B.”

 

After the tanks were retrofitted, Circle K notified Company “A” that the modified tanks were damaged and failing.  Although Company’s “A” investigation revealed the failure was the result of Company’s “B’s” testing methodology, Company “A” nevertheless repaired the damage to the tanks because its contract with Circle K required it to do so regardless of whether the damage was caused by a third party, such as Company “B.”

 

Company “A” then sued Company “B” for reimbursement of its repair costs under various claims, one of which was equitable subrogation.  Each party had expert opinions that pointed to the other for the cause of the tanks’ failure and damage.  The trial court granted a motion for summary judgment in favor of Company “B” finding that equitable subrogation did not apply.  This summary judgment was reversed on appeal as the Second District maintained that there were factual issues supporting the basis of the equitable subrogation claim:

 

Tank Tech’s [Company “A”] contract with Circle K obligated it to repair damages to the USTs [tanks]. But Tank Tech’s contractual obligation to Circle K did not convert Tank Tech into a “volunteer” to pay for damages caused by a third party and thus did not prevent the application of the equitable subrogation doctrine. Instead, Tank Tech was merely fulfilling its legal obligation to Circle K which was a necessary means of protecting itself from liability to Circle K. And Tank Tech, by virtue of Dr. Cignatta’s affidavit [expert opinion establishing Company “B” caused failure to tanks], established a genuine issue of material fact regarding whether Tank Tech or Valley Tank [Company “B”] was primarily liable for the damages. If Tank Tech is ultimately successful in proving that Valley Tank caused the damage to the USTs, then it would be entitled to seek any damages it incurred as a result of having to repair the damaged USTs.  To hold that Tank Tech is precluded from pursuing a claim for subrogation would leave Tank Tech without a remedy, a “most unfair and inequitable result.” 

Tank Tech, Inc., supra (internal citations omitted).

 

Negligence and Common Law Indemnification

 

Relatedly, Company “A” also sued Company “B” for negligence and common law indemnification for repairing tanks it claimed were caused by Company “B’s” testing methodology.  The trial court also granted summary judgment in favor of Company “B” on these claims.  Unlike the equitable subrogation claim, the Second District affirmed the summary judgment in favor of Company “B” on these claims. 

 

For Company “A” to sustain a negligence claim, it would have to establish that Company “B” owed it a duty.  Without a duty owed, there is no negligence claim.  Whether there is a duty is a question of law for the court.   In this case, when dealing with only economic losses, the relationship between the parties—Company “A” and Company “B”—needs to be examined to determine whether a special relationship exists to warrant creating a duty to protect the economic interests of another.  “[I]n order to proceed on a common law negligence claim based solely on economic loss, there must be some sort of link between the parties or some other extraordinary circumstance that justifies recognition of such a claim.”  Tank Tech, Inc., supra.   Here, the Second District agreed that Company “B” did not owe Company “A” a duty to support a negligence claim:

 

The reason why the negligence claim fails here is because there is neither a special relationship between Valley Tank [Company “B”] and Tank Tech [Company “A”] nor any extraordinary circumstance that would require imposition of a duty. Tank Tech’s injury did not flow from Valley Tank’s testing of the USTs [tanks]. Instead, Tank Tech seeks to recover the money it spent in repairing the USTs, an expense that was the result of a negotiated contract between Tank Tech and Circle K. There was no contract between Valley Tank and Tank Tech obligating Valley Tank to repair any USTs it damaged during testing or otherwise obligating Valley Tank to repay Tank Tech for the expenses incurred pursuant to Tank Tech’s contract with Circle K. And Valley Tank’s testing did not cause any personal injury or property damage to Tank Tech, the types of injuries for which the common law of negligence has historically permitted recovery.

***

This is simply a case of a party attempting to bring a tort claim to recover monies that it spent as a result of a contractual obligation to a third party. But negligence claims cannot proceed based on a party’s desire to relieve itself from a bad bargain.

Tank Tech, Inc., supra.

 

 

Likewise, regarding the common law indemnification claim, “actions for indemnity have been restricted to situations involving either a duty, an express contract, or the existence of active and passive negligence.”  Tank Tech, Inc., supra, quoting Hiller Grp., Inc. v. Redwing Carriers, Inc., 779 So.2d 602, 603 (Fla. 2d DCA 2001).  Since the Second District already agreed there was no special relationship between Company “A” and Company “B” and, thus, no duty owed, the common law indemnification claim failed for the same reasons as the negligence 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.