David Adelstein | Florida Construction Legal Updates | August 12, 2017
Destructive testing is a routine investigatory procedure in construction defect disputes. The destructive testing is necessary to determine liability (causation), the extent of damage, and the repair protocol. Destructive testing is designed to answer numerous questions: Why did the building component fail? Was the building component constructed incorrectly? What is the magnitude of the damage caused by the failure? What specifically caused the damage? What is the most effective way to fix the failure and damage? There are different iterations to the same questions, but in many instances, destructive testing is necessary to answer these questions.
Claimants sometimes prohibit destructive testing. Of course, destructive testing is intrusive. In many instances, it is very intrusive. But, this testing is a necessary evil. Without this testing, how can a defendant truly analyze their potential exposure and culpability? They need to be in a position to prepare a defense and figure out their liability. This does not mean destructive testing is warranted in every single construction defect dispute. That is not the case. However, to say it is never warranted is irrational.
Florida Statutes Chapter 558 (the pre-suit notice of construction defects process) addresses the issue of destructive testing when parties are participating in this obligatory pre-suit notice of construction defect process:
(a) If the person served with notice under subsection (1) determines that destructive testing is necessary to determine the nature and cause of the alleged defects, such person shall notify the claimant in writing.
(b) The notice shall describe the destructive testing to be performed, the person selected to do the testing, the estimated anticipated damage and repairs to or restoration of the property resulting from the testing, the estimated amount of time necessary for the testing and to complete the repairs or restoration, and the financial responsibility offered for covering the costs of repairs or restoration.
(c) If the claimant promptly objects to the person selected to perform the destructive testing, the person served with notice under subsection (1) shall provide the claimant with a list of three qualified persons from which the claimant may select one such person to perform the testing. The person selected to perform the testing shall operate as an agent or subcontractor of the person served with notice under subsection (1) and shall communicate with, submit any reports to, and be solely responsible to the person served with notice.
(d) The testing shall be done at a mutually agreeable time.
(e) The claimant or a representative of the claimant may be present to observe the destructive testing.
(f) The destructive testing shall not render the property uninhabitable.
(g) There shall be no construction lien rights under part I of chapter 713 for the destructive testing caused by a person served with notice under subsection (1) or for restoring the area destructively tested to the condition existing prior to testing, except to the extent the owner contracts for the destructive testing or restoration.
If the claimant refuses to agree and thereafter permit reasonable destructive testing, the claimant shall have no claim for damages which could have been avoided or mitigated had destructive testing been allowed when requested and had a feasible remedy been promptly implemented.
Florida Statute s. 558.004(2).
Under this pre-suit process, if a claimant refuses to permit reasonable destructive testing, the claimant shall have no claim for damages which could have been mitigated or avoided had destructive testing been allowed and had a feasible remedy been promptly implemented. In my opinion, this has very little teeth as it raises too many factual issues such as 1) was the destructive testing reasonable, 2) what damages could have realistically been mitigated and how do you prove this, 3) what is a feasible remedy and how is one to know whether the defendant would have even proposed or implemented a feasible remedy, 4) is the feasible remedy a remedy that mitigates future damage or fully addresses the root of the problem, and 5) what is the quantum of damages that could have been mitigated or avoided. Establishing the reasonableness of the destructive testing is likely easy as an expert would support this. But the same expert would have to establish the other requirements as a basis to establish an affirmative defense that some of the claimed damages the plaintiff is seeking could have been mitigated had the claimant allowed pre-suit destructive testing.
Oftentimes, however, a defendant wants to undertake certain destructive testing after a lawsuit has been initiated. What happens if the plaintiff refuses such testing in this scenario? In a recent products liability case, Westerbeke Corp. v. Atherton, 42 Fla.L.Weekly D1741c (Fla. 2d DCA 2017), a defendant wanted to perform destructive testing on a gas generator that caused an explosion on a boat. The plaintiff did not want this testing to be performed. In support of the testing, the defendant relied on a federal district case that applied four factors to consider whether the destructive testing is warranted:
1) Whether the proposed testing is reasonable, necessary, and relevant to proving the movant’s case; 2) Whether the non-movant’s ability to present evidence at trial will be hindered, or whether the non-movant will be prejudiced in some other way; 3) Whether there are any less prejudicial alternative methods of obtaining the evidence sought; and 4) Whether there are adequate safeguards to minimize prejudice to the non-movant, particularly the non-movant’s ability to present evidence at trial.
Westerbke Corp., supra, quoting Mirchandani v. Home Depot, U.S.A., Inc., 235 F.R.D. 611, 614 (D.Md. 2006).
The trial court did not apply these four factors and denied the defendant’s request to perform destructive testing on the gas generator. On appeal (through a petition for writ of certiorari), the appellate court reversed. Unfortunately, the appellate court punted without providing specific guidance as to what standard the trial should follow when granting or denying a request for destructive testing. The appellate court simply held that the four factors above may provide guidance to the trial court, but are not controlling in Florida. The appellate court further summarily pointed to the Florida’s Rules of Civil Procedure to address the issue:
The Florida law regarding discovery in general provides that a party in a civil case is entitled to discover evidence that is relevant to the subject matter of the case and that is admissible or reasonably calculated to lead to admissible evidence. Fla. R. Civ. P. 1.280(b)(1); Allstate Ins. Co. v. Langston, 655 So. 2d 91, 94 (Fla. 1995). In addition, “[a]ny party may request any other party . . . to inspect and copy, test, or sample any tangible things that constitute or contain matters within the scope of rule 1.280(b) and that are in the possession, custody, or control of the party to whom the request is directed.” Fla. R. Civ. P. 1.350(a)(2). “The discovery rules . . . confer broad discretion on the trial court to limit or prohibit discovery in order to ‘protect a party or person from annoyance, embarrassment, oppression, or undue burden or expense.‘ ” Rasmussen v. S. Fla. Blood Serv., Inc., 500 So. 2d 533, 535 (Fla. 1987) (citing Fla. R. Civ. P. 1.280(c)). We conclude that the trial court departed from the essential requirements of the law in failing to apply the proper discovery standard…..
The four factors outlined above are reasonable factors that comport with Florida law – whether the testing is relevant to the subject matter of the case. The factors provide guidance as to how to determine relevancy of destructive testing during the course of a lawsuit. Plus, the court can always impose limitations or restrictions to reduce any intrusion and protect the claimant’s interests while allowing testing to be performed. By the appellate court punting and not even ruling on whether the destructive testing would be relevant in the underlying action, the court is simply inviting another appeal.