Battle of Experts Cannot Be Decided on Summary Judgment

Tred R. Eyerly | Insurance Law Hawaii | June 6, 2018

When two competing experts disagreed on the cause of the loss, the trial court erred in granting summary judgment to the insurer. Garcia v. Firs Community Ins. Co., Fla. App. LEXIS 4237 (Fla. Ct. App. March 28, 2018).

Garcia, the homeowner, discovered water damage in his home, allegedly due to a roof leak. Garcia notified his insurer, First Community Insurance Company. A forensic engineer, Ivette Acosta, was retained by First Community to inspect the property. After the inspection, coverage was denied.

The homeowner’s policy covered direct loss to property only if the loss was a physical loss. Loss caused by “”rain snow, sleet, sand or dust to the interior of a building was excluded unless a covered peril first damaged the building causing an opening in a roof or wall and the rain, snow, sleet, sand or dust enters through this opening.” Loss caused by wear and tear, marring, or deterioration was also excluded.

Garcia filed a complaint against First Community. The insurer moved for summary judgment arguing that the cause of the water intrusion through the roof was a combination of deterioration, tree branch abrasions, and construction defects. Acosta also found that the nails observed in the roof’s shingles created a direct path for water to penetrate the shingles, which was considered a construction defect.

Garcia opposed the motion for summary judgment and submitted a report by a professional engineer, Alfredo Brizuela, who also inspected the property. Brizuela found there was insufficient evidence to rule out that the damages were caused by hail impact or wind uplift damage caused by a one-time occurrence. He also opined the damage was not age-related or long term in nature. Instead, there was evidence that the damage was caused by high rain and/or wind. The trial court granted First Community’s motion and entered final judgment.

On appeal, it was noted that in ruling on summary judgment, the trial court may neither adjudge the credibility of the witnesses nor weigh the evidence. The court agreed with Garcia that the trial court erred in granting summary judgment in favor of First Community where the conflicting reports of the parties’ experts established that there was a genuine issue of material fact as to the cause of the loss. Given the conflict in the material evidence as to the cause of the loss, the trial erred in entering final judgment in favor of First Community.

Time’s Up! Or Is It?

Dara Jebrock and Lindy Keown | CLM | Spring 2018

Proposed legislation in Florida would lengthen the statute of repose for counter, cross and third-party claims in construction defect.

The time for bringing certain actions for latent construction defects in Florida may be relaxed, depending on the outcome of proposed legislation. Senate Bill 536 and House Bill 875 – both up for vote during the 2018 legislative session – propose new language to Florida’s 10-year statute of of repose to allow counterclaims, cross-claims, and third-party claims up to one year after the statute of repose has otherwise expired.

To understand the effect of this proposed legislation, a quick primer on the statute of repose is necessary.  Unlike the statute of limitations, which establishes a time limit within which an action must be brought after a cause of action accrues, the statute of repose “cuts off the right of action after a specified time measured from the delivery of a product or the completion of work…regardless of the time of the accrual of the cause of action or of notice of the invasion of a legal right,” according to Sabal Chase Homeowners Ass’n, Inc. v. Walt Disney World Co. quoting Bauld v J.A. Jones Const. Co.

Now imagine a general contractor – let’s call it Better Builders – has been served with a construction defect suit on the afternoon of the day the 10-year statute of repose expires. Of course, Better Builders wants to sue the involved subcontractors whose scopes of work are implicated by the alleged defects. However, Better Builders’ project files on this 10-year-old project are at an offsite storage unit – inaccessible for review. Sadly for Better Builders, its potential third-party action will likely be time-barred because the statute of repose expired the day it was served – that is, unless a lucky lawyer has immediate access to the project files and works against time to detect issues and file suit against the responsible subcontractors on the same day Better Builders was served. Without a remedy, Better Builders may be liable for the entirety of any construction defect damages.

While the statute of repose is purposefully unforgiving – recognizing that an aging building should not be the subject of construction defect litigation in perpetuity – the new, proposed legislative language is a game changer for a time-pressed construction defect defendant. Practically, the pending legislation will allow a defendant, sued right before the statute of repose expires, to investigate and bring counterclaims, cross-claims and third-party actions against potentially liable entities for an additional year after the expiration of the statute of repose. Without this revision, time-barred defendants are left without recourse against parties that should be on the hook.

Current State of the Law

For construction defect claims, section 95.11(3)(c) of the Florida Statutes sets forth time periods within which a party must bring suit for a deficiency in construction. If the party does not file a suit within the given time frames, any claims regarding the defect(s) will be barred. One legislative purpose for enacting this statute was to “limit the amount of time an architect, engineer or contractor could be exposed to potential liability for the design or construction of an improvement to real property,” as found in Long v. First Fed. Sav. & Loan Ass’n.

Under the statute’s guidelines, the statute of repose applicable to “[a]n action founded on the design, planning, or construction of an improvement to real property” must be commenced within 10 years after the latest of the following four events:

1) Date of actual possession by the owner

2) Date of the issuance of a certificate of occupancy

3) Date of abandonment of construction if not completed

4) Date of completion or termination of the contract between the professional engineer, registered architect, or licensed contractor and his employer.

At least on Florida court has held the repose periods in Fla. Stat. § 95.11(3)(c) apply to “all claims,” including claims for indemnity and contribution. See Fla. Dep’t of Transp. v. Echeverri, 736 So. 2d 791, 792 (Fla. 3d DCA 1999), finding that the plain language of the statute indicates it applies to indemnity and contribution actions.

Proposed Legislation

The proposed legislation is simple but powerful. The legislation recommends the following language be added to Section 95.11(3)(c) of the Florida Statutes:

[C]ounterclaims, cross-claims, and third-party claims that arise out of the conduct, transaction or occurrence set out or attempted to be set out in a pleading may be commenced up to 1 year after the pleading to which such claims relate is served, even if such claims would otherwise be time barred.

If passed, this legislation will undoubtedly benefit construction defect defendants, such as general contractors. For instance, our hypothetical Better Builders, which was served with a lawsuit in the 11th hour on the very day the statute of repose expired, would have a meaningful opportunity to investigate and pursue claims against the subcontractors whose scopes of work are implicated by the defect claims and may therefore be liable. Likewise, if Better Builders has a counterclaim or cross-claim, it can pursue those claims in the year that follows service of process.

Florida’s legislative session began Jan. 9, 2018. As of press time, the bills were both being evaluated by legislative subcommittees. If passed, the new legislation will go into effect July 1, 2019.

 

Supreme Court’s Latest Construction Defect Decision and Its Impact on Construction Insurance Claims

David B. Haber, Frank Soto and Brett Silverberg | Daily Business Review | January 12, 2018

Prior to the Altman decision, homeowners and/or condominium associations were frustrated during the Chapter 558 process after sending a notice of claim because insured construction parties could not get insurers to become involved in pre-suit negotiations. Such a result was antithetical to the purpose of Chapter 558—which was instituted specifically to streamline the construction defect claims process and encourage early alternative dispute resolution.

In Altman, the following question was presented to the Florida Supreme Court: “Is the notice and repair process set forth in Chapter 558, Florida Statutes, a ‘suit’ within the meaning of the CGL policy issued by the insurer, C&F, to the general contractor, Altman Contractors, Inc. (Altman)?” The Florida Supreme Court recently answered in the affirmative and held that the notice process set forth in Chapter 558 does indeed constitute a “suit” within the meaning of the CGL policy at issue—which in turn means that insurance carriers can no longer sit back following receipt of a 558 notice and must instead take an active role earlier in the process.

‘Duty to Defend’

The Altman case stems from defects in the construction of Sapphire Condominium, a high-rise residential condominium in Broward County. C&F insured Altman for the Sapphire project through a policy that provided, in pertinent part, as follows: “[w]e will pay those sums that the insured becomes legally obligated to pay as damages because of ‘bodily injury’ or ‘property damage’ to which this insurance applies.  We will have the right and duty to defend the insured against any ‘suit’ seeking those damages.” Altman sought a declaratory judgment that C&F owed it a duty to defend and indemnify as part of the Chapter 558 pre-suit process to resolve claims for construction defects, and that C&F breached the liability insurance policy by refusing to initially defend Altman in the suit against Sapphire. C&F denied that Sapphire’s 558 notices invoked its duty to defend Altman under the policy because the notices did not constitute a “suit.” Notwithstanding, the Florida Supreme Court held that the Chapter 558 process is included in the policy’s definition of “suit” as an “alternative dispute resolution proceeding.”

The insurance policy at issue in Altman is a standard commercial general liability policy and as such it is likely to have a profound impact on future Chapter 558 construction defect litigation. Accordingly, defense carriers are more likely to be engaged in construction disputes, particularly during the pre-suit stage after a Chapter 558 notice is received—or at least they should in light of this decision. As such, the 558 process, unlike in many past years, is now likely to encourage the claimant and insured to attempt to settle construction defect claims prior to expending time and resources litigating those claims. Such a notion is consistent with the legislature’s aim in creating Chapter 558 as an effective alternative dispute resolution mechanism, intended to curb construction defect litigation.

In light of the foregoing, it is imperative that individual homeowners, homeowner associations and/or condominium associations, along with their experts, prepare detailed inspection reports that set forth the various construction defects affecting their property, what resulting damage is occurring as a result of those defects, the locations of the defects throughout the property, and determine compliance with the applicable building code, plans and specifications. By virtue of more detailed reports in compliance with the requirements of Chapter 558, it seemingly becomes more likely that construction defect disputes will result in settlements at an earlier stage—thereby saving the parties exorbitant amounts of money that otherwise would be expended in litigation.

Iowa Appellate Court Upholds Appraisal Award For Insured

Christina Phillips | Property Insurance Coverage Law Blog | August 20, 2017

Recently the Iowa Court of Appeals reversed the district court and upheld an approximate $1.4 million dollar appraisal award entered for the Walnut Creek Townhome Association.1

Walnut Creek’s thirty-six buildings had been damaged by a hail storm in August, 2012. Prior to that, however, the board had investigated issues with the shingles which turned out to be CertainTeed New Horizon shingles, known to have defects which caused cracking and crazing in the shingle applique and cause significant granular loss. Within a week of the hail storm, the association had the roofer conduct an inspection. The roofer concluded that he observed no hail impacts significant enough to warrant an insurance claim. Thereafter, the association had another roofer inspect the roof who concluded the roofs had hail damage and found eight to twelve hits per square. Ultimately, the association retained a public adjuster who similarly concluded the buildings had sustained hail damage and observed nine to eleven hits per square. Conversely, the insurer’s experts from Haag Engineering found that the damage observed was not consistent with hail damage and observed that the roofs were in poor condition. Depositors Insurance denied Walnut Creeks claim, excluding payment for the soft metals. Walnut Creek filed suit.

The court concluded that the parties could fully litigate whether all of the loss to the property resulted from a covered hail storm, but also stated that the appraisers and umpire must consider what damage was caused by hail and what was not. The appraisal proceeded and an award was entered for Walnut Creek in the approximate amount of $1.4 million. A couple of weeks later, a bench trial was held and the district court concluded that the appraisal was not binding or conclusive and dismissed Walnut Creek’s claims.

On appeal, the Iowa Court of Appeals concluded there was no reason to reject the appraisal award. Specifically, there was no reason to reject the appraisal panel’s determination of damage and possible causes. The structure of the appraisal award did not suggest fraud, mistake or malfeasance. As such, the court accepted the appraisal panel’s conclusions as to the amount of the loss and causation as binding.

The appellate court also concluded the district court erred in its application of the policy in light of the appraisal panel’s conclusion. In particular, the appellate court rejected the district court’s conclusion that the shingles contained a product defect that triggered deterioration—coverage excluded under (B)(2)—as it was inconsistent with the binding conclusion of the appraisal panel, which had specifically found that hail caused the damage. The court therefore reversed the judgment and ordered the district court to enter judgment in favor of Walnut Creek consistent with the appraisal panel’s award.
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1 Walnut Creek Townhome Association v. Depositors Ins. Co., 2017 WL 3077916 (Ct. App. Iowa, July 19, 2017).., 2017 WL 3077916 (Ct. App. Iowa, July 19, 2017).

Claim Barred by Florida’s Construction Defect Statute of Repose? Maybe Not. Florida Court Says You Should Read the Construction Contract More Closely

Troy Vuurens | Butler Weihmuller Katz Craig | August 21, 2017

Claim professionals are often reminded that even the most meritorious claim is worthless if not filed within the applicable statute of limitations or statute of repose. In the world of construction defect claims, Florida law provides for a 10-year statute of repose. Under § 95.11(3)(c), the action must commence within 10 years after the date of actual possession by the owner, the date of the issuance of a certificate of occupancy, the date of abandonment of construction if not completed, or the date of completion or termination of the contract between the professional engineer, registered architect, or licensed contractor and his or her employer, whichever date is latest.

Not surprisingly, the parties do not always agree on the specific date that the countdown clock on the statute of repose commenced running. In a recent appellate decision, Florida’s 5th DCA reversed a trial court’s dismissal of a homeowner’s construction defect claim that was filed just beyond 10 years after the closing date on the property. See Busch v. Lennar Homes, LLC, 219 So.3d 93 (Fla. 5th DCA 2017).

In Busch, the defendant had taken the common position that the plaintiff’s claim was barred by the statute of repose because the Purchase and Sale Agreement, i.e. “the contract,” was completed on the date of the closing on the property, which was the latest date applicable under §95.11(3)(c). Therefore, argued the defendant, the claim expired exactly 10 years later and before the complaint was filed. The trial court agreed with the defendant and dismissed the claim upon determination that the contract was completed on the date of the closing, which commenced the running of the statute of repose.

The 5th DCA reversed on appeal and held that the trial court erred in finding that the contract was completed on the date of closing. The court held that a contract is not completed until both sides of a contract have been performed. The court pointed to the “inspection and punch-list clause” of the contract which stated: “Any remaining items that Seller has agreed to correct will be corrected by Seller at Seller’s sole cost and expense prior to closing or at Seller’s option within a reasonable time after closing.” In other words, the court found that the contract was not completed at the time of closing because there were remaining punch-list items that the Seller was obligated to correct. As such, the clock on the 10-year statute of repose did not start ticking until the contract was completed (i.e. when the Seller completed the punch-list items, post-closing).

In the context of residential construction, the closing date is generally the date when the statute of repose commences. It is typically the date on which the homeowner takes possession, final payment is made, and the contract is completed. However, the 5th DCA’s decision in Busch is a reminder that there are other factors to consider as well, including if there is a contractual obligation to complete any remaining work after the closing, such as punch-list items.

It is also worth noting that the defendant in Busch is a large production home builder who likely built thousands of homes with the same contract language. Other builders may have similar clauses incorporated into their contracts, too. The Busch case is an important new decision because of the sheer volume of homes that were likely built with this language. As such, it stands to reason that Florida practitioners engaged in residential construction defect litigation may begin to see these same issues arise in their cases, too. And in all cases where the statute of repose may become a critical issue, a careful analysis of the contract should be undertaken in order to identify similar language.