Guessing as to your Construction Damages is not the Best Approach

David Adelstein | Florida Construction Legal Updates | August 24, 2019

Arbitrarily guessing as to your construction damages is NOT the best approach.  Sure, experts can be costly.  No doubt about it.  Having an expert versus guessing as to your construction damages caused by another party’s breach of contract is a no brainer.  Engage an expert or, at a minimum, be in a position to competently testify as to your damages caused by another party’s breach of contract.  Otherwise, the guessing is not going to get you very far as a concrete subcontractor found out in Patrick Concrete Constructors, Inc. v. Layne Christensen Co., 2018 WL 6528485 (W.D. New York 2018) where the subcontractor could not competently support its delay-related damages or change orders and, equally important, could not support that the damages were proximately caused by the general contractor’s breach of the subcontract.

In this case, the concrete subcontractor entered into a subcontract to perform concrete work for a public project. The project was delayed and the general contractor was required to pay liquidated damages to the owner.  Not surprisingly, the subcontractor disputed liability for delays and sued the general contractor for all of its delay-related damages “in the form of labor and materials escalation, loss of productivity, procurement and impact costs, field and home office overhead, idle equipment, inability to take on other work, lost profits, and interest.”  Patrick Concrete Constructors, 2018 WL at *1.

The general contractor moved for summary judgment as to the plaintiff’s delay-related damages – the subcontractor’s damages were nothing but guesses and the subcontractor could not prove the general contractor was the cause of the subcontractor’s damages.

The portion of the deposition transcript of the subcontractor’s president that may have also been its corporate representative as to damages is telling:

Q: After today’s exercise, do you believe you’re entitled to [$]681,740 under those items [regarding change orders]?

A: No.

Q: What amount [are] you entitled to?

A: I don’t know. I’d have to work it up.

Q: So as of right now, with my one chance to depose you, the person on damages, you can’t give me a figure that you’re actually entitled to?

A: No. We just ripped all these figures apart, so now I got to go back and refigure.

With regard to the amount of damages sought for “extra costs,” Bell [the President of subcontractor] testified as follows:

Q: Okay. Then you have – you total everything here, total of everything except for the Amount Due on Contract and Outstanding Change Order heading. So that [$]915[,000] basically added up everything under Extra Costs Not Submitted all the way down to Extra Equipment?

A: Yes.

Q: You’re asking for [$]915[,000] in this. Do you believe that’s actually what you’re entitled to today?

A: Well, like I said, we were – like you said, we have to do some adjustments here.

Q: Okay. Adjustments downward, correct, sir?

A: Yes.

Q: Can you tell me today what you think you’re actually entitled to?

A: No.

And, there was more.  The subcontractor could not locate its original estimate for the job, which is important for any loss of productivity or inefficiency claim – or any claim dealing with added labor and equipment usage. The subcontractor could not identify payroll records, time cards, vendor invoices, or anything to justify the damages it sought.  The subcontractor guessed as to labor hours without the back-up substantiating the labor hours and, equally important, could not establish it incurred the guesstimated labor hours caused by the general contractor.

In essence, Plaintiff [subcontractor] concedes that it cannot provide the Court with an “intelligent estimate without speculation or conjecture,” for either category of damages. Because Plaintiff has failed to make a factual showing sufficient to establish that the “extra costs” and “change orders” damages are capable of being proved with reasonable certainty, summary judgment dismissing these claims is appropriate.

***

Here, Plaintiff asserts that Defendant [general contractor] breached the Subcontract by delaying the Project, and that Defendant’s delay caused it to sustain damages. However, Plaintiff has admitted that Defendant was not responsible for all of the delay, and that Plaintiff and its reinforcing bar subcontractor contributed to the delay as well. Because, by Plaintiff’s own admission, it contributed to the damage-causing delays, it is required to allocate the amount of delay and resultant damages between, at a minimum, itself and Defendant.

Patrick Concrete Constructors, 2018 WL at *4.

Insurer Not Entitled to Summary Judgment on Construction Defect, Bad Faith Claims

Tred R. Eyerly | Insurance Law Hawaii | August 12, 2019

    The federal district court denied the insurer’s motion for summary judgment seeking to establish there was no coverage for construction defect claims and for bad faith. Country Mut. Ins. Co. v. AAA Constr. LLC, 2019 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 115935 (W.D. Okla. July 12, 2019).

    Jeffrey and Tammy Shaver entered two contracts with AAA Construction for the construction of a garage and of a barn on their property. After construction was completed, the Shavers sued AAA Construction for building the garage over two high-pressure gas pipelines and the utility easements associated with them. They alleged AAA Construction was negligent for constructing over a working utility line. AAA Construction’s insurer, Country Mutual Insurance Company (CMIC) denied coverage because the alleged faulty workmanship of AAA Construction did not constitute an “occurrence” under the policy. 

    CMIC sued AAA Construction for a declaratory judgment that it had no duty to defend or indemnify. CMIC moved for summary judgment. 

    The court denied the motion. A jury could find AAA Construction was negligent or engaged in other nonintentional conduct by failing to ascertain the location of the easement, meaning the possibility of coverage existed. Therefore, CMIC had a duty to defend.

    CMIC also argued that numerous exclusions were applicable to deny coverage. The court disagreed and found none of the raised exclusions applied. 

    Finally, the motion was denied regarding AAA Construction’s counterclaim for bad faith. Among other arguments, CMIC submitted it had not acted in bad faith by failing to to an adequate investigation. The court found the factual record on this issue was sparse. The record contained sufficient facts, however, upon which a reasonable juror could find the investigation conducted by CMIC was not reasonable. 

Utah Appellate Court: Homeowners’ Claim for Defective Construction Against Geotechnical Engineer Dismissed Due to Lack of Contract and the Economic Loss Rule

Patrick Johnson | Construction Industry Counselor | July 8, 2019

A recent Utah Appellate Court upheld the dismissal of a homeowners’ claims against a geotechnical engineer because the homeowners did not have a contract with the geotechnical engineer and therefore their claims were barred by the economic loss rule. See Hayes v. Intermountain Geoenvironmental Services, Inc., 2019 UT App 112, 2019 WL 2621931.  In Utah, the economic loss rule only allows lawsuits for defective design or construction to be based on a breach of contract.  Such a claim cannot be brought under a general negligence or tort theory where there is no contract.  Many states have a similar, but often not identical, economic loss rule.

In this case, the plaintiff homeowners purchased land from a developer and constructed a home.   The defendant geotechnical engineer prepared a report for the developer  concluding that the parcel of land was stable and suitable for development.  Fourteen months after construction had concluded, cracks were observed in the foundation of the home and the home began to settle rendering it unlivable.  Because the homeowners did not have a contract with the geotechnical engineer, they could not file a breach of contract claim against the geotechnical engineer. As a result, the homeowners tried to bring a claim under a general negligence theory against the geotechnical engineer for their damages.  The trial court and appellate court agreed that the homeowners were barred from asserting a negligence claim due to the economic loss rule. 

This case serves as a reminder that, in many states, recovery of purely economic losses based on theories of tort are generally not recoverable. Developers and parties to a construction project should  document their agreements in writing.  Likewise, a purchaser of a construction project should receive assignments of the developer’s and/or seller’s written contracts with third-parties involved in the development.   

Florida’s Fourth District Appeals Court Clarifies What Actions Satisfy Florida’s Construction Defect Statute of Repose

Rahul Gogineni | The Subrogation Strategist | October 29, 2018

In Gindel v. Centex Homes, 2018 Fla.App. LEXIS 13019, Florida’s Fourth District Court of Appeal recently concluded that the date on which the plaintiffs provided a pre-suit notice in compliance with §558.004 of Florida’s construction defect Right-to-Cure statute, Fla. Stat. §§ 558.001 to 558.005, et. seq., is the date on which the plaintiff commenced a “civil action or proceeding,” i.e.an “action,” within the meaning of Florida’s construction defect statute of repose, Florida Statue § 95.11(3)(c). Thus, reversing the decision of the trial court, the Fourth District held that the plaintiffs timely-filed their construction defect action against the defendants.

The Gindel case arises from the allegedly defective construction of a group of homes by Centex Homes. On March 31, 2004, Mr. Gindel (the lead plaintiff) as well as the other homeowners (hereinafter collectively referred to as either “plaintiffs” or “homeowners”) took possession of their homes. After discovering an alleged construction defect, the homeowners provided a pre-suit notice of defect to Centex on February 4, 2014. After being notified that Centex would not cure the defect, the homeowners filed suit on May 2, 2014, against Centex and its subcontractor, Reliable Roofing and Gutters, Inc. Upon motion, the district court dismissed the case against Centex, finding that: (1) Florida’s 10-year statute of repose applied; and (2) the plaintiffs failed to bring their action within 10 years of taking possession of their homes.

Statute of Repose

In the United States, almost all states have adopted a statute of repose in connection with improvements to real property. Similar to a statute of limitations, a statute of repose imposes a time limitation within which a plaintiff has to file suit. However, a statute of repose is different from a statute of limitations in that it can start to run even before the plaintiff’s claim arises. Accordingly, a plaintiff’s claim may be barred by a statute of repose before the plaintiff is even aware of the latent construction defect giving rise to the plaintiff’s claim.

In Florida, there is a 10-year statute of repose for claims brought in connection with an improvement to real property. Under § 95.011 of the Florida Statutes, “[a] civil action or proceeding, called “action” in this chapter… shall be barred unless begun within the time prescribed in this chapter.” That time is further defined in §95.11(3)(c) of the Florida Statutes, which states:

An action founded on the design, planning or construction of an improvement to real property… must be commenced within 10 years after the date of actual possession by the owner, the date of the issuance of the 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.” (Emphasis added).

In overturning the lower court’s decision, the appellate court concluded that, by including both “civil action” and “proceeding” within the definition of the term “action,” the statute contemplated that more than the filing of a civil action would satisfy the time requirement for the Statute of Repose. It further concluded that, because the Right-to-Cure statute, §558 of the Florida Statutes, sets out a series of mandatory steps that must be taken prior to bringing a judicial action, it sufficiently constituted an “action” for purposes of Florida’s Statute of Repose. Accordingly, the appellate court found that the plaintiffs, through their pre-suit notice sent on February 4, 2014, brought their “action” against Centex within 10 years of taking possession of the property. Thus, the court held that the plaintiffs were not time-barred from bringing their claims in a subsequent civil action.

This case serves as a good reminder to review the applicable statute of repose for any possible exception that may apply to your case. Additionally, it should be noted that some jurisdictions have “Right-to-Cure” statutes, which should also be reviewed prior to bringing litigation related to a construction defect.

Post-Opinion Motions

As of this writing, the parties have filed post-opinion motions related to the case, including a motion to certify the matter for appeal to Florida’s Supreme Court. Thus, the precedential value of the case, whether in the Fourth District or in other Florida appellate districts, is subject to change. Accordingly, until the Supreme Court of Florida addresses this issue, subrogation practitioners should contemporaneously file both the pre-suit notice required by Florida’s Right-to-Cure statute and a civil suit in the appropriate court. To the extent that the defendant contends that the suit is premature, a court should, pursuant to Florida Statute § 558.003, stay the suit to allow the parties time to comply with the Right-to-Cure statute.

Utah’s Highest Court Holds That Plaintiffs Must Properly Commence an Action to Rely on the Relation-Back Doctrine to Overcome the Statute of Repose

Shannon M. Warren | The Subrogation Stategist | August 7, 2018

Earlier this summer, in Gables & Villas at River Oaks Homeowners Ass’n v. Castlewood Builders LLC, 2018 UT 28, the Supreme Court of Utah addressed the question of whether the plaintiff’s construction defects claims against the general contractor for a construction project were timely-filed, or barred by the statute of repose. In Utah, the statute of repose requires that an action be “commenced within six years of the date of completion.” The plaintiff alleged that its 2014 amended complaint naming the general contractor as a defendant was timely-commenced because, before the date on which Utah’s statute of repose ran, a defendant filed a motion to amend its third-party complaint to name the general contractor as a defendant, and the defendant subsequently assigned its claims to the plaintiff. The plaintiff argued that the filing of its 2014 amended complaint related back[1] to the date of its original complaint. The Supreme Court disagreed, holding that an action is “commenced” by filing a complaint and that a motion for leave to amend does not count as “commencing” an action.

In Gables & Villas, the plaintiff, Gables & Villas at River Oaks Homeowners Association (the Association), a homeowner’s association, filed suit against the developers of the project. Shortly after the plaintiff filed suit, the developers filed a third-party action against multiple sub-contractors. At this juncture, the Association and sub-contractors were not aware of the general contractor’s involvement with the construction at issue.

At a later date, the parties identified Castlewood Builders LLC (Castlewood) as the general contractor involved with the original construction project. On May 2, 2012, the developers filed a motion for leave to amend their third-party complaint to bring Castlewood into the action. After the court granted the developers’ motion, the developers assigned their claims to the Association. The Association then filed an amended complaint and Castlewood accepted service. However, the court struck the amended complaint because the Association, the filing party, had not obtained leave to amend the complaint. The court found that the leave it granted to the developers did not permit the Association to file an amended complaint, even if the developers assigned their claims to the Association.

Over six months after the general contractor accepted service of the Association’s amended complaint, the Association filed a motion for leave to amend. Its motion was finally granted approximately eight months later. Within two months, on May 13, 2014, the association filed its amended complaint.

In response, Castlewood filed a motion for summary judgment, alleging that the statute of repose precluded the Association from bringing claims against it related to six buildings that were completed in 2006 and 2007. There was no dispute that the amended complaint was filed more than six years after the final building was completed. However, the Association argued that its amended complaint was timely because it related back to the date of its original complaint.

The district court denied Castlewood’s motion, finding that the general contractor and developers were so closely related that the general contractor was on notice of the claims against it when the developers filed its motion to amend the complaint within the statute of repose period. Because the general contractor had notice of the motion to amend before the statute of repose period expired, the district court found that the relation-back doctrine was satisfied.

In response to Castlewood’s interlocutory appeal, the Association argued that its action against Castlewood “commenced” when the developers filed their motion for leave to amend. To decide when an action commences within the meaning of the statute of repose, the court looked to Utah R. Civ. P. 3(a) for guidance. Rule 3(a) states that a civil action is commenced by filing a complaint or by service of the summons and a copy of the complaint. It makes no mention of motions to amend, which the court considered fatal to the Association’s position.

Ultimately, the court found that the letter of the law was clear in what is meant by commencing an action and ­­was unwilling to accept policy arguments that were inconsistent with the plain meaning of Rule 3(a). Thus, the court held that the Association “commenced” its action when it filed its amended complaint, which was after the statute of repose period had expired. In support of its holding, the Supreme Court rejected the Association’s position that an injustice would result if motions to amend did not “commence” an action subject to the statute of repose because the moving party has no control over when a motion to amend is granted, and accordingly cannot control when the amended pleading is filed. However, as the court pointed out, while a party cannot control when a motion to amend is granted, it does have the option of filing a separate lawsuit to prevent its claims from being time-barred.

The procedural errors and delays in the Gables & Villas case ultimately led to the Association’s claims against Castlewood being time-barred by the statute of repose. This case is a reminder that subrogation practitioners should be diligent in meeting statutory and procedural requirements, and that failure to do so may lead to a dismissal of the subrogating insurer’s claims. Additionally, it is good practice to conduct prompt, thorough investigations to identify all potentially liable parties, rather than waiting until litigation is underway and there is a greater risk of statutory time limitations being an issue.


[1] The relation-back doctrine allows amended pleadings to relate back to the time an original pleading is filed in certain circumstances, including when the party to be brought in by amendment received notice of the action and knew that an action would be brought against it once properly identified by the party asserting such claims. See Utah R. Civ. P. 15(c).