The Florida Supreme Court just entered an opinion that potentially has huge implications in construction defect disputes. In Caduceus Properties, LLC v. William G. Graney, P.E., 39 Fla. L. Weekly S93a (2014), an owner sued its architect for design defects with its HVAC system. The architect third-partied into the dispute its mechanical engineer (sub-consultant). The architect’s third-party claims were dismissed for failure to comply with a court order and the architect ultimately declared bankruptcy. The owner, AFTER the statute of limitations expired to assert defect claims, amended its complaint to assert direct claims against the mechanical engineer (also, after the mechanical engineer had already been dismissed from the dispute). The issue the Florida Supreme Court analyzed was whether the owner could assert these claims after the expiration of the statute of limitations since the mechanical engineer was previously a third-party defendant in the dispute. Stated differently, did the owner’s claims against the mechanical engineer relate back to the original third party complaint the architect timely asserted against the mechanical engineer such that the claims were timely filed within the statute of limitations? The Florida Supreme Court held the owner could do this: “[A]n amended complaint filed after the statute of limitations has expired, naming a party who had previously been made a third-party defendant as a party defendant, relates back…to the filing of the third party complaint.”
Why are the implications huge? In a construction defect case, oftentimes there are third-party defendants. In this case, it was a sub-consultant of the architect. In many cases, it is the general contractor that asserts third-party claims against subcontractors. Sometimes, a subcontractor moves to dismiss the claims and prevails and/or settles directly with the general contractor. Well, now, based on this ruling, even if the subcontractor is dismissed, as long as a third-party complaint was asserted against it, it could potentially be back-doored into the dispute by the owner / plaintiff. The owner would just assert a claim against the subcontractor, even after the expiration of the statute of limitations, and argue that under the Florida Supreme Court’s ruling its claims against the subcontractor relate back to the initial third-party complaint that the general contractor timely filed against the subcontractor. Ouch! Therefore, now, a third-party defendant may not get the solace they think they deserve from getting dismissed from a lawsuit or settling directly with the party that sued it. So, a subcontractor or third-party defendant that wants to settle is best getting the owner to sign off on the settlement to ensure it does not get back-doored into the very lawsuit it was dismissed from. On the other hand, this gives the owner options to sue third-party defendants brought into the dispute after the expiration of the statute of limitations if there are concerns with the solvency of the defendant it sued (e.g., general contractor or architect that are usually in direct privity of contract with the owner).
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