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History of Defects Leads to Punitive Damages for Bankrupt Developer

March 1, 2012 — CDJ Staff

The South Carolina Court of Appeals has ruled that evidence of construction defects at a developer’s other projects were admissible in a construction defect lawsuit. They issued their ruling on Magnolia North Property Owners’ Association v. Heritage Communities, Inc. on February 15, 2012.

Magnolia North is a condominium complex in South Carolina. The initial builder, Heritage Communities, had not completed construction when they filed for bankruptcy protection under Chapter 11. The remaining four buildings were completed by another contractor. The Property Owners’ Association subsequently sued Heritage Communities, Inc. (HCI) alleging defects. The POA also sued Heritage Magnolia North, and the general contractor, BuildStar.

The trial court ruled that all three entities were in fact one. On appeal, the defendants claimed that the trial court improperly amalgamated the defendants. The appeals court noted, however, that “all these corporations share officers, directors, office space, and a phone number with HCI.” Until Heritage Communities turned over control of the POA to the actual homeowners, all of the POA’s officers were officers of HCI. The appeals court concluded that “the trial court’s ruling that Appellants’ entities were amalgamated is supported by the law and the evidence.”

Heritage also claimed that the trial court should not have allowed the plaintiffs to produce evidence of construction defects at other Heritage properties. Heritage argued that the evidence was a violation of the South Carolina Rules of Evidence. The court cited a South Carolina Supreme Court case which made an exception for “facts showing the other acts were substantially similar to the event at issue.” The court noted that the defects introduced by the plaintiffs were “virtually identical across all developments.” This included identical use of the same products from project to project. Further, these were used to demonstrate that “HCI was aware of water issues in the other projects as early as 1998, before construction on Magnolia North had begun.”

The trial case ended with a directed verdict. Heritage charged that the jury should have determined whether the alleged defects existed. The appeals court noted that there was “overwhelming evidence” that Heritage failed “to meet the industry standard of care.” Heritage did not dispute the existence of the damages during the trial, they “merely contested the extent.”

Further, Heritage claimed in its appeal that the case should have been rejected due to the three-year statute of limitations. They note that the first meeting of the POA was on March 8, 2000, yet the suit was not filed until May 28, 2003, just over three years. The court noted that here the statute of limitation must be tolled, as Heritage controlled the POA until September 9, 2002. The owner-controlled POA filed suit “approximately eight months after assuming control.”

The court also applied equitable estoppel to the statute of limitations. During the time in which Heritage controlled the board, Heritage “assured the unit owners the construction defects would be repaired, and, as a result, the owners were justified in relying on those assurances.” Since “a reasonable owner could have believed that it would be counter-productive to file suit,” the court found that also prevented Heritage from invoking the statute of limitations. In the end, the appeals court concluded that the even apart from equitable tolling and equitable estoppel, the statute of limitations could not have started until the unit owners took control of the board in September, 2002.

Heritage also contested the jury’s awarding of damages, asserting that “the POA failed to establish its damages as to any of its claims.” Noting that damages are determined “with reasonable certainty or accuracy,” and that “proof with mathematical certainty of the amount of loss or damage is not required,” the appeals court found a “sufficiently reasonable basis of computation of damages to support the trial court’s submission of damages to the jury.” Heritage also claimed that the POA did not show that the damage existed at the time of the transfer of control. The court rejected this claim as well.

Finally, Heritage argued that punitive damages were improperly applied for two reasons: that “the award of punitive damages has no deterrent effect because Appellants went out of business prior to the commencement of the litigation” and that Heritages has “no ability to pay punitive damages.” The punitive damages were upheld, as the relevant earlier decision includes “defendant’s degree of culpability,” “defendants awareness or concealment,” “existence of similar past conduct,” and “likelihood of deterring the defendant or others from similar conduct.”

The appeals court rejected all of the claims made by Heritage, fully upholding the decision of the trial court.

Read the court’s decision…

History of Defects Leads to Punitive Damages for Bankrupt Developer