Public Relations Battle over Harmon Tower
October 23, 2012 — CDJ Staff
Tutor Pernini claims that CityCenter is portraying the construction firm as “the scum of the earth” in an attempt to influence eventual jurors, according to an article at Vegas Inc. The contractor’s attorneys have requested information regarding the public relations efforts of MGM Resorts and CityCenter, characterizing CityCenter’s PR as a “litigation spin doctor.”
CityCenter has requested that at least one subpoena be canceled. Judge Elizabeth Gonzales has already allowed one to go through, although she has noted that Perini cannot request documents from CityCenter’s lawyers to the litigation consultants under attorney/client privilege. Tutor Perini claims that in 2010, Patricia Glaser, who has represented CityCenter, said her goal was to portray Perini as “the scum of the earth,” and make that certain that judges and juries would not “adopt the world view espoused by the opposing party.”
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Construction Defects Lead to Demolition
May 26, 2011 — CDJ Staff
Ten years after it was built, demolition of Seattle’s McGuire Building has begun, as Jeanne Lang Jones reports in the Puget Sound Business Journal. Construction defects had rendered the 25-story apartment building uninhabitable. The major problem was corroded steel cabling. According to the report, “the building’s owners reached an undisclosed settlement last year with St. Louis-based contractor McCarthy Building Companies.”
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The Hidden Dangers of Construction Defect Litigation
March 28, 2012 — David M. McLain, Colorado Construction Litigation
David M. McLain, writing at Colorado Construction Litigation, has an interesting blog post republishing his article in Common Interests magazine, the monthly periodical of the Rocky Mountain Chapter of the Community Associations Institute. In his article, he touches on a number of pitfalls in construction defect litigation, including the potential conflicts of interests facing HOAs. He also considers the problems homeowners can face, including both “strong-arm tactics” taken by attorneys to compel homeowners to join the lawsuit, or situations in which the interests of the HOA do not match those of the homeowners. He writes:
There is also a conflict of interest with individual owners who attempt to opt out of the case. This can lead to shocking strong-arm tactics on the part of plaintiffs’ attorneys. In one instance, a plaintiffs’ attorney sent a letter to an individual homeowner that stated that as a 1/58th owner of the common elements, if he refused to go along with the suit, and there was ultimately a finding in favor of the HOA which was in any way limited by his refusal to participate, he would be personally liable for 1/58th of the HOA’s total damages. In another instance, a different plaintiffs’ attorney sent a letter to a homeowner who wanted the builder to perform warranty repairs, informing the owner that if he let the builder perform any repairs, the attorney would bill the HOA according to the fee agreement entered by the HOA board (without knowledge or consent of non-board members) and that the HOA would assess the homeowner for that expense. These are just two examples of conflicts which may arise between the HOA board and individual homeowners when the HOA pursues CD cases.
Another example of a conflict which will arise as a result of CD litigation occurs post-settlement. When an HOA settles for less than 100% of the amount necessary to fund all repairs outlined by its experts, plus attorneys’ fees and litigation costs, there will obviously be a shortfall in the amount necessary to fix the development. The HOA board must then choose to impose a special assessment to cover the shortfall or to make some, but not all, of the repairs outlined by its experts. In choosing the latter, the conflict arises with respect to which homes get fixed and which do not. In this situation, the HOA board has acted as the attorney-in-fact for the individual owners by bringing claims on their behalf, and has compromised those claims without their knowledge or consent.
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Reprinted courtesy of David M. McLain of Higgins, Hopkins, McClain & Roswell, LLC. Mr. McClain can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.
No-Show Contractor Can’t Hide from Construction Defect Claim
June 19, 2012 — CDJ Staff
The failure of R. J. Haas to produce documents or make himself available for deposition has worn out the patience of the US District Court in San Jose. Judge Howard Lloyd issued a ruling inProbuilders Specialty Ins. Co. v. Valley Corp. (N.D. Cal., 2012).
Probuilders issued an insurance policy covering Haas for their work on the construction of a single-family home for Ty and Karen Levine. The Levines sued Haas for “shoddy and incomplete work.” Probuilders contends that Haas “made material misrepresentations with respect to verifying that the subcontractors had insurance.” Since November 2011, Haas has been without legal counsel in this matter.
Despite Probuilder’s attempts, the court noted that “Hass any not provided any documents in response to the plaintiff’s three sets of requests for production of documents.” Haas also “has refused to make himself available for deposition.” Haas was first scheduled for deposition in September, 2011. Subsequently, Haas has rescheduled his deposition repeatedly, postponing it to January 4, then February 13, and then agreed to be deposed “before the then-scheduled March 15 mediation,” after which he said he would “be unavailable to be deposed before April.
The court noted that although Haas “hay have had legitimate reasons for wishing to continue his deposition, such as illness and his attempt to retain new counsel,” however, the court concluded that “Haas has had ample time to retain new counsel and prepare for deposition.
The court also found fault with Haas’s objections to certain terms in the Request for Admissions, among them “named,” “independent contractor,” and “work,” noting that Haas called these “vague and ambiguous.” The court called it “quibbling,” and noted that the federal courts disfavor this. Later in the decision, the court made it clear that Haas “is obligated under the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure to respond to discovery requests.” And concludes, “that he has apparently been seeking to retain new counsel for over five months does not give him license to ignore plaintiff’s discovery requests entirely.
The court granted Probuilders the option of filing a motion for sanctions. Mr. Haas did not attend or participate.
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Crane Dangles and So Do Insurance Questions
November 7, 2012 — CDJ Staff
Hurricane Sandy sent a construction crane dangling from the top of One57, a condo construction project in New York City. In response to the risk, the nearby Parker Meridian and other nearby buildings were evacuated until the crane could be stabilized. Businessweek reports that One57 involves “a tangle of companies,” including the developer, Extell Development and the contractor, Lend Lease Construction. Pinnacle Industries was responsible for providing and operating the crane.
The insurance claims are yet to be made, but they will likely include the costs of evacuating nearby buildings and to cover any damage to the building itself. David DeLaRue, a vice president in construction practice at Willis Group Holdings said there would be two questions: “Did our insured do anything to cause that loss? Does this policy cover it?”
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Limiting Plaintiffs’ Claims to a Cause of Action for Violation of SB-800
November 18, 2011 — Samir R. Patel, Esq. and Todd E. Verbick, Esq., Lorber, Greenfield & Polito, LLP
There has been a fair share of publicity about the SB-800 amendments to the Civil Code (Civil Code section 896, et seq.) that codified construction defect litigation in 2002. Most of the publicity is geared toward the pre-litigation standards allowing a builder the right to repair before litigation is commenced by a homeowner. Less focus and attention has been given to the fact that violation of the SB-800 performance standards is being used by plaintiff’s counsel as an additional tool in the plaintiff’s pleading tool box against builders. Closer scrutiny to SB-800 reveals that those provisions should in fact act as a limitation to the pleading tools available to plaintiffs and an additional tool for builders in the defense of cases governed by SB-800.
The typical construction defect complaint contains the boiler plate versions of numerous causes of action. These causes of action include Strict Liability, Negligence, Negligence Per Se, Breach of Contract, Breach of Contract – Third-Party Beneficiary, Breach of Express Warranties, Breach of Implied Warranties, among others. The wide array of causes of action leave a defendant “pinned to the wall” because they require a complex defense on a multitude of contract and tort related causes of action. Furthermore, the statutes of limitations as to these claims widely differ depending upon if the particular defect is considered latent or patent. The truth of the matter remains, no matter what the circumstances, if a construction defect matter ultimately goes to trial, it is inevitable that plaintiffs will obtain a judgment on at least one of these causes of action.
On its own, the Strict Liability cause of action can be a thorn in a defendant’s side. A builder is obviously placing a product into the stream of commerce and strict liability is a tough standard to defend against, particularly when it concerns intricate homes comprised of multiple components that originally sold for hundreds of thousands of dollars. A Negligence cause of action can also be difficult to defend because the duty of care for a builder is what a “reasonable” builder would have done under the circumstances. An interpretation of this duty of care can easily sway a jury that will almost always consist of sympathetic homeowners. A Negligence Per Se cause of action can also leave a defendant vulnerable to accusations that a builder violated the Uniform Building Code or a multitude of other obscure municipal construction-related code provisions during the construction of the home. Lastly, the Breach of Contract cause of action leaves a builder relying on dense and intricate purchase and sale agreements with dozens of addenda which leave the skeptical jurors turned off by what they view as one-side, boilerplate provisions. Ultimately, when a matter is about to go to trial, the complexity of these complaints can benefit a plaintiff and increase a plaintiff’s bargaining power against a defendant who is attempting to avoid a potentially large judgment.
Enter the SB-800 statutes. The SB-800 statutes apply to all homes sold after January 1, 2003. Civil Code section 938 specifically states that “[t]his title applies only to new residential units where the purchase agreements with the buyer was signed by the seller on or after January 1, 2003.” (Civil Code §, 938.) As time progresses, more residential construction defect cases will exclusively fall under the purview of SB-800. Slowly but surely more SB-800 governed litigation is being filed, and its exclusive application is looming on the horizon.
On its surface, this “right to repair” regime has left builders with a lot to be desired despite the fact that it is supposed to allow the builder the opportunity to cure any deficiencies in their product before litigation can be filed by potential plaintiffs. However, the application of the time line for repair has shown to be impractical for anything but the most minor problems involving only small numbers of residential units. Moreover, the fact that the fruits of the builder’s investigation into the claimed defects in the pre-litigation context can freely be used as evidence against it in litigation makes builders proceed with trepidation in responding with a repair. For these reasons, more SB-800 litigation can be expected to result due to the shortcomings of the pre-litigation procedures, and savvy defense counsel should anticipate the issues to be dealt with in presenting the defense of such cases at trial.
This fact should not necessarily be met with fear or disdain. Within the SB-800 statutes, the legislature made it clear that they were creating a new cause of action for construction defect claims, but it further made it clear that this cause of action is a plaintiff’s exclusive remedy. The legislature giveth, but at the same time, the legislature taketh away. Throughout numerous provisions within the SB-800 statutes, the Civil Code states that claims for construction defects as to residential construction are exclusively governed by the Civil Code, and that the Civil Code governs any and all litigation arising under breaches of these provisions. Civil Code section 896 specifically states:
In any action seeking recovery of damages arising out of, or related to deficiencies in, the residential construction … the claimant’s claims or causes of action shall be limited to violation of, the following standards, except as specifically set forth in this title. (Civil Code §, 896.)
Civil Code section 896 then provides approximately fifty-plus standards by which a construction defect claim is assessed under that provision. Civil Code section 896 covers everything from plumbing to windows, and from foundations to decks, and in several instances expressly dictates statutes of limitations as to specific areas of construction that severely truncate the 10-year latent damage limitations period. As for any construction deficiencies that are not enumerated within Civil Code section 896, Civil Code section 897 explicitly defines the intent of the standards and provides a method to assess deficiencies that are not addressed in Civil Code section 896. Civil Code section 897 states:
Intent of Standards
The standards set forth in this chapter are intended to address every function or component of a structure. To the extent that a function or component of a structure is not addressed by these standards, it shall be actionable if it causes damage. (Civil Code §, 897.)
Therefore, Civil Code section 897 acts as a catch-all by which defects that are not covered within Civil Code section 896 can be evaluated on a damage standard mirroring the Aas case (damages must be present and actual). The result of sections 896 and 897 being read in combination is a comprehensive, all-inclusive set of performance standards by which any defect raised by Plaintiffs can be evaluated and resolved under a single SB-800 based cause of action.
Civil Code section 943 makes clear that a cause of action for violation of SB-800 performance standards is a plaintiff’s sole remedy for a residential construction defect action. Specifically, Civil Code section 943 states:
Except as provided in this title, no other cause of action for a claim covered by this title or for damages recoverable under 944 is allowed. In addition to the rights under this title, this title does not apply to any action by a claimant to enforce a contract or express contractual provision, or any action for fraud, personal injury, or violation of a statute. (Civil Code §, 943.)
Civil Code section 944 provides the method for computing damages within a construction defect action, as follows:
If a claim for damages is made under this title, the homeowner is only entitled to damages for the reasonable value of repairing any violation of the standards set forth in this title, [and] the reasonable cost of repairing any damages caused by the repair efforts… . (Civil Code §, 944.)
A cursory review of these statutes yields the conclusion that the legislature was attempting to create an exclusive cause of action that trumps all other causes of action where SB-800 applies. The remedy available to plaintiffs is limited to that allowed by the Civil Code. As noted above, “[n]o other cause of action for a claim covered by this title…is allowed.” (Civil Code §, 943.) Therefore, Civil Code sections 896, 897, 943, and 944 specifically prohibit the contract-based and tort-based causes of action typically pled by plaintiffs.
Plaintiff’s counsel has seized upon the language of section 943 to advance the argument that SB-800 still allows a plaintiff to advance typical contract and tort based causes of action. On the surface, this argument may seem compelling, but a minimum of scrutiny of the express language of section 943 dispels this notion. Section 943 says that it provides rights “[i]n addition” to those under the SB-800 Civil Code provisions. Clearly, the language in section 943 is intended to expressly underscore the fact that a plaintiff is not precluded from seeking relief in addition to that allowed under SB-800 for damages not arising from a breach of the SB-800 standards or for damages in addition to those recoverable under Section 944. This language does not provide an unfettered license to bring a Strict Liability, Negligence or other cause of action against a builder where SB-800 applies.
In fact, this language only keeps the door open for plaintiffs to pursue such causes of action not arising from a breach of the SB-800 standards should there be such supporting allegations. For example, if a plaintiff alleges that a builder breached an “express contractual provision” related to the timing of the completion of the home and close of escrow, and the contract specifies damages in this regard, a plaintiff may have a viable separate cause of action for Breach of Contract for recovery of those damages precisely because that is not an issue expressly dealt with in SB-800 in the performance standards under sections 896 and 897, or in the damage recovery terms under 944. As it stands, the vast majority of complaints are seeking redress for violation of the same primary right; that is, defects specifically outlined in Section 896 and 897 or which result in damages as stated in Section 944.
So, how does a builder defend against a complaint that contains multiple causes of action regarding construction defects for a home sold after January 1, 2003? There are numerous ways to approach this. First and foremost, these superfluous and improper causes of action can be attacked by demurrer seeking dismissal of all causes of action other than the cause of action alleging violation of SB-800. If the the time period within which to file a demurrer has passed already, a motion for judgment on the pleadings can be utilized to attack the improper causes of action in the same way as a demurrer can be used for this purpose.
The limitation to a demurrer or motion for judgment on the pleadings is that the judge is restricted to viewing only the four corners of the pleading when making a ruling. It is typical for plaintiffs’ counsel to cleverly (or one might even say, disingenuously) leave the complaint purposely vague to avoid a successful defense attack on the pleadings by not including the original date the residence was sold. In that instance, a motion for summary adjudication can be used to attack a plaintiff’s complaint. By simply providing evidence that the homes were originally sold after January 1, 2003, the improper causes of action should be subject to dismissal by summary adjudication. If the plaintiff is a subsequent purchaser, the builder still has recourse to enforce the pleading limitations under SB-800. Civil Code section 945 states that “[t]he provisions, standards, rights, and obligations set forth in this title are binding upon all original purchasers and their successors-in-interest.” (Civil Code §, 945.)
Attacking a plaintiff’s complaint to eliminate multiple causes of action can have numerous benefits. The practical result is that a plaintiff will only have one viable cause of action. The advantage is that the SB-800 performance standards include the defined performance standards and shortened statutes of limitations periods with regard to specific issues. Furthermore, as to defects which are not specifically provided for in Civil Code section 896, Civil Code section 897 requires a proof of actual damages. Therefore, a plaintiff must provide evidence of current damages and not simply conditions that may potentially cause damage in the future.
The Appellate Courts have yet to directly address and interpret these SB-800 provisions. The time for that is undoubtedly drawing near. For now, however, plaintiffs will have to find ways to accurately plead construction defect claims within the confines of one cause of action for breach of the performance standards enumerated within the Civil Code.
Printed courtesy of Lorber, Greenfield & Polito, LLP. Mr. Patel can be contacted at email@example.com and Mr. Verbick at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Defense for Additional Insured Not Barred By Sole Negligence Provision
August 11, 2011 — Tred Eyerly, Insurance Law Hawaii
A general contractor was entitled to a defense as an additional insured when the underlying complaint did not allege it was solely negligent.Â A-1 Roofing Co. v. Navigators Ins. Co., 2011 Ill. App. LEXIS 656 (Ill. Ct. App. June 24, 2011).
A-1 was the general contractor for a roof resurfacing job at a high school. Jack Frost Iron Works Inc. (“Frost”) was one of A-1’s subcontractors. Frost had a CGL policy with Navigators Insurance Company under which A-1 was an additional insured.
An employee of Frost’s subcontractor Midwest Sheet Metal Inc. was killed at the job site when a boom-lift he was operating flipped over. The boom-lift had been leased by another Frost subcontractor, Bakes Steel Erectors, Inc. (BSE). The deceased's estate filed suit against A-1, BSE and two other defendants.
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Reprinted courtesy of Tred R. Eyerly, Insurance Law Hawaii. Mr. Eyerly can be contacted at email@example.com
Seven Tips to Manage Construction Defect Risk
July 10, 2012 — CDJ Staff
Jody T. Wright looks at “seven strategies being used around the country to identify, manage and mitigate your exposures” in a piece in Business Insurance. Wright, Senior VP, Construction Department Manager for Lockton Companies in Denver, gives seven simple steps from the perspective of a insurer.
His first step is to match your project to your insurance. He suggests keeping the riskier projects separate, noting that from an insurer’s point-of-view, “any project that creates a homeowners association carries a higher potential threat of future litigation.” This leads to his second point: you need to “determine what makes your liability insurer nervous.” In other words, talk with your insurer.
His third point suggests that builders look back and see if there is a pattern of problems that have lead to payouts from your insurer. Keep your insurer happier by making sure these areas don’t continue to be problems. Nor should you look for new problems. He suggests against leading in new technologies.
Three more points deal with being careful about with whom you associate. He tells builders to negotiate their contracts, avoiding clauses that would obligate a builder to “indemnify the owner for the negligent work of others that they did not control.” Avoid subcontractors “with loss patterns that might affect your project and reputation.” Builders should identify “owners with a pattern of suing contractors” adding that risk to the cost of the job. They should also identify “the most effective attorneys and expert witnesses” and get them involved before the litigation starts.
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