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Preparing for Trial on a Cause of Action for Violation of Civil Code section 895, et seq.

May 10, 2012 — Samir R. Patel, Esq., Lorber, Greenfield, & Polito, LLP

In 2002, the California Legislature enacted the Right to Repair Act (hereinafter “SB-800”), as codified in Title VII of the Civil Code. As set forth in Civil Code section 895, et seq., SB-800 established a set of standards for residential construction, and provides a statutory protocol to address alleged violations of those standards. SB-800 applies to all new single family homes sold after January 1, 2003, and it created its own cause of action governed completely by its own terms, in that in order to state a cause of action under SB-800, a plaintiff may only allege a violation of the Act. (Civ. Code, § 938.) Under Civil Code sections 896, 897, 943, and 944, the Legislature made it clear that it intended to create a single cause of action for construction defects in homes that fall under the purview of SB-800. By passing SB-800, the Legislature eliminated multiple and often redundant or conflicting causes of action, burdens of proof, statutes of limitations, and types of damages that were common in construction defect actions prior to the enactment of the same.

Civil Code section 895, et seq. has significantly changed the landscape of construction defect lawsuits. Yet, for years, the only attention given to the statutes focused solely on the codified pre-litigation process that requires plaintiffs and builders to meet and confer regarding defects and attempt a process to repair the alleged defects before litigation is pursued. A major impediment to the implementation of the pre-litigation procedures has often been that the statutes specifically state that the information obtained during the pre-litigation process is admissible at trial. Hence, through use of the pre-litigation process, plaintiffs’ counsel can engage in a builder funded fishing expedition and later use the information obtained to advance their litigation goals. As such, many builders have chosen to opt out of codified pre-litigation process altogether, an option which the builder can elect within their Purchase and Sale Agreements.

Recently, counsel for builders throughout California have turned their attention to the “exclusive remedy” aspect of SB-800 by seeking, often successfully, to limit plaintiffs to a single cause of action for violation of SB-800. 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. 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. (Civ. Code, § 943.)  

The question remains: what is the benefit of requiring plaintiffs to trim down their complaint and eliminate their tried and true common law causes of action, and requiring them to pursue only a single cause of action for violation of SB800?

The construction standards enumerated within SB-800 include fifty-plus functionality standards. On their face, any benefit to pursuing a construction defect action under a single cause of action for violation of SB-800 initially appears trivial at best, in light of the fact that a jury may be very confused with the complexity of the functionality standards set forth within the Civil Code. Nevertheless, Title VII of the Civil Code actually contains numerous provisions that builders can utilize to their benefit throughout the process of construction defect litigation, including during preparation for trial.

First and foremost, counsel for builders can assert numerous affirmative defenses that will be beneficial if the matter proceeds to trial. These affirmative defenses, as codified in Civil Code section 945.5, include mitigation, in whole or in part, for damages caused by: an unforeseen act of nature; a homeowner’s failure to allow reasonable and timely access for inspections and repair under the pre-litigation procedures; the homeowner’s failure to follow the builder’s recommendations and commonly accepted homeowner maintenance obligations; ordinary wear and tear; misuse; abuse; or neglect. Builders should include these affirmative defenses within their responsive pleadings and as trial approaches, prepare appropriate motions in limine and request special jury instructions regarding the same. As frustrated builders and their attorneys are well aware, many construction defect suits result from a homeowner’s failure to properly maintain their property in a manner that is consistent with normal maintenance procedures and guidelines. Furthermore, within the ten year statute of limitations for most defects, ordinary wear and tear is often attributable to numerous deficiencies alleged by plaintiffs. The affirmative defense for a homeowner’s failure to allow inspections and repairs is also vital, as plaintiffs’ counsel may encourage a homeowner to forego the repair and seek monetary damages, allowing plaintiffs’ counsel to ultimately obtain their share of attorney’s fees. Therefore, the SB-800 statutes provide the builder with recourse and distinctive mitigation defenses that were previously and confusingly mixed into tort and contract related defenses. These affirmative defenses can also be utilized by counsel during the cross-examination of plaintiff homeowners and expert witnesses. Defense counsel should fully grasp these defenses and utilize them as defense themes throughout litigation.

As a plaintiff is limited to a single cause of action for violation of SB-800, if defense counsel has failed to properly eliminate excessive tort and contract causes of action prior to trial, a motion for summary adjudication, or at the very least, a motion for judgment on the pleadings should be brought to limit the introduction of evidence outside of a single cause of action for violation of SB-800. Practical judges are always looking for ways to streamline and expedite trials, and they are currently ruling that SB-800 is the exclusive remedy available to plaintiffs. In fact, plaintiffs’ firms in SB-800 matters are now voluntarily limiting their complaints to this one cause of action.

Special jury instructions can also be crafted to limit a jury’s computation of damages pursuant to Civil Codesection 944, which 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, the reasonable cost of repairing any damages caused by the repair efforts, the reasonable cost of repairing and rectifying any damages resulting from the failure of the home to meet the standards, the reasonable cost of removing and replacing any improper repair by the builder, reasonable relocation and storage expenses, lost business income if the home was used as a principal place of a business licensed to be operated from the home, reasonable investigative costs for each established violation, and all other costs or fees recoverable by contract or statute. (Civ. Code, § 944.) [Emphasis added.]

Civil Code section 944 specifically prohibits recovery for damages outside the scope of its explicit language as it states “the homeowner is only entitled to ... damages for the reasonable value of repairing any violation of the standards set forth in this title....” [Emphasis added.] The statute ultimately provides a “reasonableness” standard for the computation of damages that did not exist when computing damages on traditional common law tort and contract claims. Therefore, defense counsel should prepare special jury instructions to limit evidence of damages introduced at trial to the reasonable value of repairing any violation of the standards, and to exclude any evidence of damages beyond the reasonableness standard. Defense counsel should seize the opportunity to utilize the theme of “reasonableness” when attacking plaintiffs’ allegations and plaintiffs’ proposed repair methodology throughout the discovery process and at trial.

Defense counsel may also prepare a motion in limine or special jury instruction regarding the limitation of evidence regarding defects that did not cause resultant damage. 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. (Civ. Code, § 897.) [Emphasis added.]

Defense counsel can argue that the introduction of any evidence supporting a claim for construction-related deficiencies that are not enumerated within Civil Code section 896, or for deficiencies where no damage has occurred is prohibited and must be excluded at trial. This requirement of resultant damages is familiar as the general rule was previously established in Aas v. Superior Court (2000) 24 Cal.4th 627, in which the California Supreme Court held that there is no tort recovery for construction defects that have not actually caused property damage. The legislature effectively codified this rule within Civil Code section 897.

A motion in limine can also be crafted to limit expert testimony to the standards enumerated in Civil Code section 896, and to deficiencies that caused damage pursuant to Civil Code 897. The motion in limine can be based upon Civil Code section 943 and the fact that claims for defects in homes which were sold after January 1, 2003 may only be pursued under a single cause of action for violation of SB-800. As such, expert testimony should be controlled by the standards set forth in Civil Code section 896. Furthermore, throughout a construction defect matter, defense counsel should ensure that their experts are well versed with the standards and that they can provide testimony that utilizes the same. Defense counsel’s knowledge of the standards will also be helpful during the cross-examination of plaintiffs’ expert witnesses.

If, despite the efforts of defense counsel, the complaint still has numerous causes of action, or if only some homes fall under the purview of SB-800 while others do not, defense counsel can utilize a motion to bifurcate trial. The motion’s basis is that a cause of action for violation of SB-800 will require the introduction of evidence regarding the violations of the fifty-plus standards, and the tort and contract-based claims would also require the introduction of a wide range of evidence to prove each cause of action. For example, in order to prove the tort causes of action, plaintiffs must prove elements such as: duty, breach, proximate and actual causation, and that the builder placed the homes into the stream of commerce. (See Richards v. Stanley (1954) 43 Cal.2d 60, 63; Kriegler v. Eichler Homes, Inc. (1969) 269 Cal.App.2d 224, 227.) On the contract causes of action, plaintiffs must prove the existence of a valid written contract for the sale of the home, including proof regarding the existence of basic contractual elements such as offer, acceptance, and consideration. (Civ. Code, § 1624 subd. (a); Roth v. Malson (1997) 67 Cal.App.4th 552, 557.) Defense counsel can argue that exposing the jury to elements that may or may not be applicable to all of the homes in the action will complicate and confuse the jury. Thus, concurrently exposing the jury to the SB-800 claims and the non-SB-800 claims will necessitate undue consumption of time, and create the substantial danger of undue prejudice of confusing the issues or misleading the jury.

One of the most important and relevant features of the SB-800 statutes is that they include shortened statutes of limitation as to certain enumerated defects. The codified statutes of limitations apply from the date of “close of escrow,” and are much more definitive than statutes of limitations regarding tort and contract claims. Therefore, they can be utilized within a motion for summary adjudication in cases where only one or a few defects are alleged. For example, under Civil Code section 896, et seq., there is a five year limitation on paint (Civ. Code, § 896, subd. (g)(1)); a four year limitation on plumbing fixtures (Civ. Code, § 896, subd. (e)); a three year limitation on landscaping (Civ. Code § 896, subd. (g)(12)); and a one year limitation on irrigation systems and drainage (Civ. Code, § 896, subd. (g)(7)). The non-SB-800 claims are subject to a four year statute of limitation for patent defects and a ten year statute of limitation for latent defects. (See Code of Civ. Proc., §§ 337.1, 337.15.) The contrast between the statute of limitations for the SB-800 claims and non-SB-800 claims can complicate a matter at trial, further establishing the necessity to limit plaintiffs to a single cause of action for violation of SB-800. Hence, defense counsel should also utilize a motion to bifurcate the statute of limitations issues from the issue of liability if a question of fact exists. If successful on the motion to bifurcate, plaintiff’s counsel will be barred from the introducing evidence at trial regarding a defect where the statute of limitations has run.

Defense counsel should also seek to simplify the construction standards for the jury. Ultimately, by drafting jury instructions and a special verdict form that is easy to navigate, counsel can promote an easy interpretation of the standards enumerated within the Civil Code. The best route for drafting a special verdict form is to draft it as a check-list, similar to a traditional real estate walk-through check-list. By incorporating the shortened statutes of limitations into the special verdict form, defense counsel can effectively frame the case for the jury. The special verdict form should also allow the jury to easily eliminate any claim for damages that is mitigated, in whole or in part, through the codified affirmative defenses. Defense counsel should also consider drafting a trial brief that effectively and simplistically provides the trial court judge with an understanding of the specific defects before the court, and simultaneously notes which Civil Code standards are implicated and the scope of the same. If the trial judge is not well versed in construction defect litigation, defense counsel should be all the more careful in breaking down the parameters and limitations codified within SB-800 for the court.

The strategies outlined within this article are only a few tactics that can be utilized to defend a construction defect suit. Depending on the defect allegations within any particular case, defense counsel should become intimately familiar with Title VII of the Civil Code and use all aspects of the same to their advantage. If not, plaintiffs’ counsel will have the advantage during “court-house step” settlement discussions and at trial.

Printed courtesy of Samir R. Patel, Esq. of Lorber, Greenfield, & Polito, LLP. Mr. Patel can be contacted at spatel@lorberlaw.com.

Preparing for Trial on a Cause of Action for Violation of Civil Code section 895, et seq.