No Coverage For Damage Caused by Chinese Drywall
October 28, 2011 — Tred Eyerley, Insurance Law Hawaii
The pollution exclusion barred coverage for alleged property damage and bodily injury in Evanston Ins. Co. v. Harbor Walk Dev., LLC, No. 2:10cv312 (E.D. Va. Sept. 9, 2011).
Homeowners sued the insured, Harbor Walk, in three lawsuits, alleging the Chinese drywall installed in their homes emitted sulfides and other noxious gases. This caused corrosion and damage to the air-conditioning and ventilation units, refrigeration coils, copper tubing, faucets, metal surfaces, electrical appliances and other personal items. The homeowners also alleged the compounds emitted by the drywall caused bodily injury, such as allergic reactions, headaches, etc.
Harbor Walk’s insurer, Evanston, filed for a declaratory judgment that the pollution exclusion precluded coverage.
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Reprinted courtesy of Tred R. Eyerly, Insurance Law Hawaii. Mr. Eyerly can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org
A Lien Might Just Save Your Small Construction Business
April 4, 2011 — Douglas Reiser in the Builders Counsel Blog
Many owners incorrectly believe that payment to the general contractor gets the owner off the hook for payment to subcontractors and suppliers. This assumption sometimes fosters the irresponsible owner, who fails to ensure that everyone is getting paid. Fortunately for those contractors further down the contracting chain, this assumption is incorrect.
Suppliers and subcontractors can file a lien to secure payment for their labor and materials. A filing party must offer proper notice (if applicable) and file an adequate and timely lien in the County where the work is performed. You can read our earlier posts on these topics by following this link.
A lien notice and a lien put an owner on notice that your business has provided labor and/or materials for the improvement of the owner’s property (See RCW 60.04.031 for more info). If the owner fails to take care to ensure that your business is paid the law mandates that the owner may have to pay twice.
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Reprinted courtesy of Douglas Reiser of Reiser Legal LLC. Mr. Reiser can be contacted at email@example.com
Retaining Wall Contractor Not Responsible for Building Damage
July 20, 2011 — CDJ Staff
The Court of Appeals of Indiana ruled on July 8 in the case of Rollander Enterprises, Inc. v. H.C. Nutting Co. Judge Baily wrote the opinion affirming the decision of the trial court.
The case involved an unfinished condominium complex, the Slopes of Greendale, in Greendale, Indiana. Rollander is a real estate development company incorporated in Ohio. One of the issues in the case was whether the case should be settled in the Indiana courts or be tried in Ohio. The project was owned by a special purpose entity limited liability corporation incorporated in Indiana.
Rollander hired Nutting to determine the geological composition of the site. Nutting’s report described the site as “a medium plastic clay containing pieces of shale and limestone.” The court summarized this as corresponding with “slope instability and landslides.” Rollander then hired Nutting to design the retaining walls, which were constructed by Scherziner Drilling.
After cracking was discovered on State Route 1, the walls were discovered to be inadequate. More dirt was brought in and a system of tie-backs was designed to anchor the walls. Not only were the tie-backs unsightly, local officials would not approve the complex for occupancy. Further, the failure of the wall below one building lead to damage of that building.
The court concluded that since almost all events occurred in Indiana, they rejected Rollander’s contention that the case should be tried in Ohio. Further, the court notes “the last event making Nutting potentially liable on both claims was an injury that occurred in Indiana and consequently, under the lex loci delicti analysis, Indiana law applies.”
Nor did the court find that Nutting was responsible for the damage to the rest of the project, citing an Indiana Supreme Court ruling, that “there is no liability in tort to the owner of a major construction project for pure economic loss caused unintentionally by contractors, subcontractors, engineers, design professionals, or others engaged in the project with whom the project owner, whether or not technically in privity of contract, is connected through a network or chain of contracts.”
The court concluded:
Because Rollander was in contractual privity with Nutting, and Indy was connected to Nutting through a chain of contracts and no exception applies, the economic loss rule precludes their recovery in tort. Damage to Building B was not damage to "other property," and the negligent misrepresentation exception to the economic loss rule is inapplicable on these facts. The trial court therefore did not abuse its discretion by entering judgment on the evidence in favor of Nutting on the Appellants' negligence and negligent misrepresentation claims.
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Construction Defects Are Occurrences, Says Georgia Supreme Court
July 10, 2012 — CDJ Staff
Michael Bradford writes about the implications of a March decision of the Georgia Supreme Court in which the court found that “negligent construction resulting in damage to surrounding property constitutes an occurrence under a commercial general liability policy. The contractor in the case, American Empire Surplus Lines Insurance Co. Inc. vs. Hathaway Development Co. Inc, argued that a damage caused by a plumbing subcontractor’s work was covered. American Empire was the insurer for the plumbing subcontractor.
Bradford notes that this follows similar decisions in other courts. The George court ruled that “an occurrence can arise where faulty workmanship causes unforeseen or unexpected damage to other property.”
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Local Government Waives Construction Fees to Spur Jobs
June 19, 2012 — CDJ Staff
Warren Township in New Jersey has waived building and electrical permit fees, up to $5,000, for businesses that create at least five new jobs. The fee reductions are available for construction in areas zones under various designations. Buildings that have received a zoning variance are not eligible. The Echoes-Sentinel notes that other towns in Somerset County, New Jersey have adopted similar ordinances.
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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 firstname.lastname@example.org and Mr. Verbick at email@example.com.
Architect Not Liable for Balcony’s Collapse
September 13, 2012 — CDJ Staff
The Texas Supreme Court declined to hear an appeal from a woman who was partially paralyzed due to the collapse of a balcony. She had sued the architect of her friends’ home, but the Texas Third Circuit Court of Appeals had reversed a jury ruling against the architect, Sinclair Black. Black’s firm, Black + Vernooy, had designed the home and had supervised “administration of the construction contract.” Despite a contractual obligation to “endeavor to guard the owner against defects and deficiencies,” the balcony builder had not followed the architect’s specifications, including in the construction of the balcony.
While the jury found Black liable for ten percent of the blame, Black argued that he could not be held liable for the contractor’s negligence, nor did he have any duty to third parties.
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Texas covered versus uncovered allocation and “legally obligated to pay.”
April 27, 2011 — April 27, 2011, by CDCoverage.com
In Markel American Ins. Co. v. Lennar Corp., No. 14-10-00008-CV (Tex. Ct. App. April 19, 2011), insured homebuilder Lennar filed suit against its insurer Markel seeking recovery of costs incurred by Lennar to repair water damage to homes resulting from defective EIFS siding. Following a jury trial, judgment was entered in favor of Lennar and against Markel. On appeal, the intermediate appellate court reversed. Applying Texas law, the court first held that Lennar failed to satisfy its burden of allocating damages between covered and uncovered. In a prior decision, the court had held that, while the costs incurred by Lennar for the repair of the resulting water damage
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Reprinted courtesy of CDCoverage.com