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Court Strikes Down Reasonable Construction Defect Settlement

December 20, 2012 — CDJ Staff

The Court of Appeals of Washington has struck down a construction defect settlement between a building owner and the companies she hired to repair the siding, among other repairs to bring the building up to code. Yuan Zhang hired Hawk Construction LLC to do repair work. Hawk, in turn, hired Ready Construction LLC for some aspects of the project. Hawk and Ready were both insured by Capital Specialty Insurance Corporation.

There were several problems with Ready’s work. After removing old siding, they did not protect the building, nor did they remove all of the damaged layers. Ready covered, but did not fix, a mildew problem under the old siding. When new siding was reattached, the nails used were too short to adequately attach it.

After paying for an inspection of the work, Zhang had Hawk and Ready begin the repairs again, but the work was abandoned without being completed. Zhang sued Hawk for breach of contract. Hawk then sued Ready, claiming that “Ready was liable to Hawk to the extent that Hawk was liable to Zhang.” Capitol retained defense for both contractors.

Zhang settled with Hawk, in an agreement that gave her “the right to collect and/or pursue all costs and attorney fees paid by Hawk or its insurance company defending against the Zhang’s claims and pursuing claims against Ready.” Subsequently, she also settled with Ready. Both companies ceased operations.

Zhang had the settlements reviewed by a court, which concluded that the settlements were reasonable. Capital was allowed to appeal, claiming that the settlement included costs that were Zhang’s responsibility. The appeals court did not examine the question of the reasonableness of the settlement, concluding that Capitol’s interests were relevant only to “questions of bad faith, collusion, and fraud.”

In the case of Zhang, the court concluded that the relationship between Zhang and her former contractors was collusive. The court noted that “bad faith or collusion may exist when the evidence indicates a joint effort to create, in a non-adversarial atmosphere, a resolution beneficial to both parties, yet highly prejudicial to the insurer as intervener.” The court noted that both companies had minimal assets which were, in any case, exempted from the agreement. Further, the court found that the agreements failed to determine “what amount of the repairs related to preexisting water damage.” Zhang’s calculation of costs also included her expenses for architectural and engineering services, which the court points out, “where always Zhang’s costs to bear.”

The court concluded that “the overall structure of the settlements is highly probative of collusion, fraud, or bad faith.” Zhang’s agreements with Hawk and Ready allowed her to collect compensation from Hawk and then collect Ready’s compensation to Hawk for their portion of the settlement, allowing Zhang to collect the monies twice. Further, she was allowed to pursue Capitol for Hawk’s attorney expenses, even though Hawk had none. “The right to recover Hawk’s fees merely set up a windfall recovery for Zhang.” The court described the agreements among Zhang, Hawk, and Ready as “precisely the type of manipulation [the law] is intended to preclude.”

Read the court’s decision…

Court Strikes Down Reasonable Construction Defect Settlement