May 16, 2017
Many construction contracts contain provisions requiring one or more parties to purchase insurance to cover certain activities or property related to the project. These provisions put an affirmative duty on a party to go out and obtain insurance to protect themselves, the other party in the contract or for against third party claims. Given the potential for expensive property damage claims or even personal injury, it makes sense for the parties to consider insurance provisions. This can be a great way of protecting against the risks of loss and litigation. If there is damage or loss and it is covered by a policy, this “Plan B” works. But what if in the event of loss the party that agreed in the contract to purchase insurance failed to do so? Is there a “Plan C?” Can they sue for breach of agreement to purchase insurance? In Virginia, the courts often deem the party who failed to fulfill their obligations to purchase insurance responsible for the loss. This seems obvious, but in cases where the opponent also breached the contract, it may not be clear how to sort out the liabilities. Whether an owner, contractor or subcontractor is what lawyers and judges call a “constructive insurer” by failure to buy insurance turns on the specific language in the agreement.
The leading Supreme Court of Virginia case on this is the 1983 decision, Walker v. Vanderpool. Roland and Elizabeth Walker owned a home in Virginia, southwest of Richmond. In 1977, they retained Vanderpool Heating & Air Conditioning Service for purchase and installation of an oil-burning furnace for $2,305. The contract said, “All work to be completed in a workmanlike manner according to standard practices.” The terms also required the Walkers to acquire and maintain fire insurance on the house. After completion, the furnace caught fire and the house burned. The Walkers had not purchased fire insurance. The Walkers alleged that their home burned because Vanderpool negligently connected the new oil furnace to a “non-existent chimney” and then turned it on. The Walkers sued Vanderpool for $45,000.00 in damages.
Vanderpool argued that if a person enters into an agreement to obtain insurance and neglects to fulfil this obligation, that person becomes the insurer and is potentially liable as such to the other party to the contract. The Walkers responded that the insurance provisions do not properly work to protect Vanderpool from liability for their own negligence.
The Supreme Court of Virginia took a “freedom of contract” approach on this case, observing that the Walkers were free to reject the Vanderpool contract unless the insurance provision was removed or modified. The Court agreed with Vanderpool that by their failure to procure the insurance, the Walkers became self-insured on this risk, and could not come after Vanderpool.
It’s easy to see how these parties looked at the contract and saw in it what they wanted. Vanderpool liked the insurance provisions, and the Walkers liked the scope and standard of workmanship provisions. In general, courts will try to harmonize different provisions in a contract so that no sections are effectively removed or rewritten in the judge’s decision.
Owners and contractors often do not focus on the insurance provisions in a contract until after something unfortunate happens. It pays to understand any contract before signing it.
Sometimes a party who fails to purchase required insurance for a project has no means to pay on a claim. A contractor may have no assets except a few pieces of equipment. An owner may have spent all of their extra cash on the project. It is important to obtain certificates of insurance to confirm that there is coverage in place.
These insurance provisions are found in a variety of other real estate related agreements, such as lease agreements, condominium or HOA covenants or mortgage documents. Newer HOA and condominium covenants seek to shift risks off the board and onto individual owners in sections dealing with liability, indemnification and insurance. Sometimes state statutes will impose insurance requirements. For example, in the District of Columbia, the Condominium Act requires owners and the association to purchase insurance. To understand insurance obligations for an owner in a HOA or condominium, it is necessary to also check what statutes, if any may apply should a dispute arise. Owners and contractors usually need the assistance of a qualified attorney to answer questions raised by mumbo jumbo in real estate and construction documents. Individual persons can often protect themselves by purchasing insurance. Being fully insured can save property owners from potential costs, including repairs and related attorney’s fees.
October 25, 2016
There is a lot of litigation and arbitration in the construction contracting industry. Most of these cases are disputes over whether the contractor did the work and if so, whether it has been appropriately compensated under the terms of the agreement. Some construction disputes include allegations of deceptive practices. Virginia law approaches unprofessional practices in the construction contracting industry in two ways: First, construction contractors must obtain licenses to do business here. A builder is subject to professional sanction if the Board for Contractors finds that the conduct violated regulations. There is a fund managed by the board, from which unsatisfied claims may be paid if certain criteria are met. Second, owners, general contractors, subcontractors and other parties can bring lawsuits (or where agreed, arbitration claims). Can residential owners bring Virginia consumer protection claims against contractors? Parties unfamiliar with these rules often need help navigating the legal system to protect their rights.
VCPA & License Regulation:
In the 1970’s, the General Assembly adopted the Virginia Consumer Protection Act (“VCPA”). The main purpose of the VCPA is to make it easier for consumers (including homeowners) to bring legal claims against suppliers for deceptive practices. Before the VCPA, consumers had to prove fraud. Suing for fraud is attractive because a court may award attorney’s fees or punitive damages for fraud. However, fraud carries a higher standard of proof and many defenses that the consumer must overcome. In a proper case, the VCPA allows for tripled damages and attorney’s fees. The legislature has exempted certain types of real estate related business activity from the VCPA, including regulated lenders, many landlords and licensed real estate agents. What about contractors? Are contractors subject to professional regulation and exempt from the VCPA? Last month, the Circuit Court of Loudoun County considered this question in a lawsuit arising out of a residential custom contracting dispute.
Closing the Sales Process for the Custom Residential Construction Project:
On May 20, 2015, licensed contractor Interbuild, Inc. made a written agreement with Leslie & John Sayres for the construction of a large recreational facility on their property. The Sayres agreed to pay $399.624.00 for what would include a batting cage, swimming pool, exercise area and bathroom. According to the Sayres, they relied upon certain false representations by Interbuild in their decision to move forward with the contract. They allege that Interbuild told them the following:
- Interbuild had been established since 1981.
- The project did not require a building permit.
- The contractor already priced things out with subcontractors.
- Interbuild would supervise construction full-time.
- The project would be completed in 16 weeks.
- 4000 PSI concrete would be used.
- The building would be constructed upon an agreed upon area.
On October 20, 2016, attorney Chris Hill discusses this Sayres opinion in his Construction Law Musings blog. He observes that many of the alleged misrepresentations sound like things that would be specifications or terms of the contract. Hill raises concerns expressed by Interbuild’s lawyers that the Sayres complaint attempts to transform a breach of contract case into a fraud claim. I agree that this fraud in the inducement claim will be a challenge to pursue. However, I think that some of the fraud claims described in the Sayres counterclaim sound more like promissory fraud than anything else. Under Virginia law, promissory fraud occurs when one party makes a promise to the other that they have no intention of keeping, and the listener relies upon this empty promise to their detriment. In July, I blogged about this in the foreclosure context. If a false promise remains fraud even after reduced to a contract, then the Sayres fraud in the inducement claims make more sense.
Some of these alleged misrepresentations appear potentially more serious than others. While contract management experience is important, the Sayres contracted with Interbuild for a certain result. The experience was not an end unto itself. A missing permit could become a problem if the county later decided that the construction was not code-compliant and wanted substantial, costly corrections. The subcontractor pricing could become an issue if it could be proven that Interbuild was effectively unable to complete the job from the get-go. A contractor is required to provide adequate supervision regardless of what is represented. Rarely will you see a written agreement that absolves a contractor of this. In a proper case, courts will award damages for delay. However, the Sayres would have to prove that they relied upon the agreed delivery date. I suspect that this lawsuit is not about the Sayres inconvenience of continuing to exercise in a different place. The strength of the concrete raises serious structural questions, but would require proof by expert testimony. Building the project on the spot where the customer wants is indeed a fundamental issue. However, it might be shown that the location under the contract is unfeasible due to site conditions or that the difference is only slight. In general, the damages must flow from the misrepresentations. Courts are reticent to award a windfall to purchasers if the lies are of minimal consequence.
After paying most of the purchase price but before completion, the Sayres terminated the contract. Interbuild sued for work that was allegedly performed but not paid for. The Sayres filed counterclaims for fraud in the Inducement, VCPA and breach of contract.
Fraud in the Inducement:
Interbuild sought a court ruling on whether the Sayres could move forward with their fraud in the inducement and VCPA claims. The Contractor argued that the fraud claim should be thrown out. Interbuild maintained that the fraud claim was not proper because the customer only alleges that their expectations under the contract were disappointed. In its September 8, 2016 opinion letter, the Court dispensed with this argument, distinguishing between fraud inducing formation of the contract and fraud in the performance of the contract. The court found that the counterclaim clearly alleged that the misrepresentations were made to convince the Sayres to sign the contract. Because the alleged fraud occurred before the contract came into being, the claim is not alleging disappointed contractual expectations.
When legal disputes arise, owners and contractors frequently focus their attention on things that were most recently said or done. A contractor may be unhappy about an owner’s hands-on attitude about a project. Customers may take offense at the contractor’s customer service. However, the case might be about fraud in the inducement issues that come from the sales process. In the Sayres case, the judge allowed the fraud in the inducement claim to move forward.
Interbuild adopted a different approach in its attempt to get the Sayres’ VCPA claim dismissed. The contractor argued that since it is subject to regulation as a licensee of the state contracting board, it is exempt from the consumer protection statute. While the VCPA does not specifically name contractors as exempt, it does exclude “any aspect of a consumer transaction which aspect is authorized under laws or regulations of this commonwealth. Va. Code § 59.1-199. Contractors are subject to state regulation by Va. Code § 54.1-1000, et seq. In his opinion, Judge Douglas L. Fleming, Jr. followed judicial precedents distinguishing between consumer transactions that are specifically sanctioned by law vs. those that are merely regulated. The absence of a prohibition of a particular practice does not constitute authorization of that practice. Since the professional regulations do not specifically cover the particular types of business practices at issue, this statutory exemption does not protect the contractor from suit. The court found that the alleged misrepresentations are the kind of practices that are actionable under the VCPA. This is consistent with other rulings made by Virginia courts in cases between consumers and construction contractors.
The VCPA also provides that a consumer may sue a contractor for not having a license. Interbuild argued that because it had an active contracting license it was exempt from the VCPA. Since Interbuild is subject to license revocation for conduct that violates professional regulations, that should be the sole remedy under the state statutes. Judge Fleming rejected this argument, observing that the state’s licensure regulations do not, “inferentially cloak licensed contractors with VCPA immunity if they are shown to have committed deceptive practices.” In short, a professional license does not include with it a privilege to engage in fraudulent behavior.
News reports frequently raise public policy questions about professional regulation. Each year, more occupations become subject to licensure requirements. Usually this means that the leaders in that industry regulate its participants by means of a state board. Too often, self-regulating industries use these boards to protect prominent members against competition. Consumers look to the boards for relief from predatory practices, but are often frustrated by the results. Interbuild’s arguments seem to appeal to this notion that as a licensee, its customers should have to go through the board if they want a special remedy. Bear in mind that there is a public demand for housing prices to go down. Builders have a more organized lobby than consumers regarding professional regulation and limiting liability for extra damages in lawsuits. Given market demands, I wonder how close the General Assembly is to exempting contractors from the VCPA. The construction industry provides many jobs to Virginia. However, I think that the public’s interests would not be served if quality and service were sacrificed for job creation and affordability concerns. A defect-riddled house is the most unaffordable of investments to its owner and doesn’t help the “property values” of others.
All the September 8, 2016 opinion decided was that Interbuild’s counterclaims may move forward in litigation. Even under the lower standards and enhanced remedies of the VCPA, claims based on deception are difficult to prove and obtain an award of damages.
When disputes arise over custom construction contract projects, the parties cannot rely upon the board of contractors or the county’s permitting office to advocate or mediate for them. When payment issues, construction defects or other disputes arise, the services of an experienced construction litigator are necessary to protect one’s best interests.
For Further Reading:
July 31, 2014
Your typical disputes over an earnest money deposit as liquidated damages in residential real estate sales go something like this: Home buyers decide to submit a contract and an earnest money deposit as an offer to purchase the property. Before closing, the buyer cannot find financing or discovers a defect with the home. If the buyer still has a contingency she can exercise to get out of the contract, then usually there is not a problem with return of the deposit. Where the seller is worried about finding another buyer and there is no applicable contingency, there might be a dispute over who is entitled to the escrowed funds. In scenarios falling within this classic dilemma, the common fact is that the realtor, seller or some other escrow agent holds the buyer’s funds until they are dispersed pursuant to the sales contract.
What if the buyer signs the contract but never submits the deposit and does not go to closing? Can the buyer still be liable to the seller in the deposit amount? The Circuit Court of Fairfax County, Virginia, recently held that contract default language in a National Association of Realtors form was unenforceable as written under this scenario.
In April 2012, Sagatov Builders, LLC entered into a contract to sell Christian Hunt a residential property in Willow Creek Estates in Oakton, Virginia. The contract required Mr. Hunt to submit a $50,000 deposit within 5 days of the issuance of the building permit. The seller submitted the approved building permit to Mr. Hunt in September 2012. According to the Complaint, Mr. Hunt failed to make the deposit or to go to closing. According to Redfin.com, the property was sold on Dec. 13, 2013 for $2,775,000. Perhaps Sagatov suffered some expenses and inconveniences associated with having the property tied up with Mr. Hunt during peak home selling months. Sagatov’s website has an advertisement for the completed property, including pictures and a description. In April 2014, Sagatov Builders filed a lawsuit against Mr. Hunt for the unpaid $50,000.00 deposit as liquidated damages for his breach of the contract.
Why is Sagatov seeking the deposit amount as liquidated damages instead of a calculation of actual damages suffered? The parties used a National Association of Realtors Sales Contract for Land form No. W-48C (VA) dated 6/95. Section 21, entitled, “Default,” provides that:
If the Purchaser is in default, the Seller shall have all legal and equitable remedies, retaining the Deposit until such time as those damages are ascertained, or the Seller may elect to terminate the contract and declare the Deposit forfeited as liquidated damages and not as a penalty …. If the Seller does not elect to accept the Deposit as liquidated damages, the Deposit may not be the limit of the Purchaser’s liability in the event of a default.
On its face, this provision would seem to give the seller the option of retaining the deposit as liquidated damages and/or going after the buyer for additional damages. What are “Liquidated Damages” in Virginia? Attorney Lee Berlik defines them in his blog post as:
[T]he amount of which has been agreed upon in advance by the contracting parties. When a contract contains a liquidated-damages provision, the amount of damages in the event of a breach is either specified, or a precise method for determining the sum of damages is laid out. This is often done in situations where the parties agree that the harm likely to be caused by a breach would be difficult or impossible to measure with any precision, so they agree on a figure in advance and dispense with the time and effort that would otherwise be involved in proving compensatory damages at trial.
Rather than litigating a hot mess of damages issues, parties can stipulate to liquidated damages in their contracts. So long as the liquidated amounts are not deemed a “penalty” by the Court, these provisions are enforceable. A few months ago I posted an article to this blog about how Courts seek to avoid imposing similar penalties in construing commercial lease acceleration of rents provisions.
The liquidated damages provisions in the real estate form that came before Fairfax Circuit Court Judge Charles Maxfield presented a new twist on the liquidated damages vs. improper penalty debate. Upon the buyer’s default, these provisions gave the Seller the option of electing the liquidated damages or seeking some other amount of damages.
- It isn’t a true stipulation to liquidated damages because of its elective characteristics; and
- Even if it was, it is a “penalty” because it would only be exercised if actual damages were less than the deposit amount.
I think that the drafters of the form (leaving aside for a moment the changes made by Sagatov and Hunt) contemplated that an escrowed deposit would become a potential source for payment of damages in the event of default. These default terms seem focused on avoiding a scenario where the escrow agent would have to release the deposit, only to watch an aggrieved party chase after those released funds in court. They seem to have tried to create a right to draw on an escrow in the event of a breach.
Virginia Lawyers Weekly reports that Sagatov will have an opportunity to re-draft its pleadings based on the Court’s ruling. It will be interesting if this case ultimately goes up on appeal to the Supreme Court of Virginia.
If the $50,000 deposit had been actually escrowed, would the Court’s interpretation and application of these Default terms be any different? If actual damages were less than $50,000, would drawing the whole amount constitute a “penalty?” What if expenses dealing with the dispute, such as attorney’s fees, were incurred by the seller?
June 3, 2014
An engineer must obtain and maintain a Professional Engineer’s license from the APELSCIDLA Board to practice in the Commonwealth of Virginia. Pursuant to professional regulations, when an engineer, or other design professional, completes a set of drawings, he affixes his professional seal with the date and signature. His seal displays his professional license number. This finishing touch assures the reader, especially the owner and the builder, that the plans are ready to go.
If the project built according to the stamped plans fail, one would expect a claim against the engineering firm. With smaller design firms, the customer may only interact with one representative who handles everything. In such a case, what about engineer personal liability? On May 20, 2014, a federal judge in southwest Virginia issued an opinion in a case where the owner of a collapsing feed barn filed suit against an engineer after a barn he designed fell apart. The opinion shows the tension between the interests of freedom of contract and consumer protection in professional malpractice cases.
Ken McConnell hired Servinsky Engineering, PLLC to design a foundation for a barn on his farm. Mark Servinsky, a Virginia Professional Engineer, was its principal. The foundation constructed according to Servinsky’s plans failed, damaging the structure and tearing the fabric roof. The barn cannot be used safely. McConnell sued both the Servinsky firm and Mr. Servinsky personally. The engineering firm filed for bankruptcy protection. Mr. Servinsky filed a motion to have the personal claims against him dismissed.
McConnell alleged that Mr. Servinsky was personally liable for negligently performing the engineering work that resulted in an unusable barn. McConnell argued for liability on the grounds that Virginia law requires an engineer to affix his professional seal, signature and date to his drawings. Judge James Jones ruled that only the firm, and not the personal defendant, could be liable under the contract with McConnell. Here are a few takeaways in this judicial opinion:
- Privity of Contract: This is a legal principle whereby (except in limited situations) only the parties to a contract may sue other parties to the contract. Whether contractual privity is required in malpractice cases varies by profession and jurisdiction. If the customer sues for an engineer’s failure to meet the expectations set by the contract, then only the parties to the contract may be sued. Judge Jones does not address any arguments that McConnell’s contract was with anyone other than the engineering firm.
- Professional Regulations: Unless they specifically provide for personal liability, laws governing design professionals create duties surrounding licensure, not liability to consumers. The state board decides who can or cannot have a license.
- Professional Standards: If personal liability is difficult to prove and bankruptcy is available, what assurances does working with a professional provide to consumers? Judge Jones observed that in malpractice cases, the professional standards are implicit terms to any contract for services with a professional engineer. The professional standards fill in gaps as to the duty of care in performance of the contract. That is why negligence is discussed in these types of cases. The professional services firm cannot hide behind the absence of a specific term in the contract when there is a professional standard that articulates that duty.
Judge Jones dismissed McConnell’s claims against Mr. Servinsky personally, finding that the professional seal did not create professional duties to the customer above & beyond the professional services contract.
The Bankruptcy Court allowed McConnell’s suit against the engineering firm to proceed, since it was covered by insurance. That case is set to go to trial later this year. Servinsky’s engineer license provided McConnell with a potential remedy, but not by personal liability. The license was the prerequisite by which Servinsky to obtain a professional liability policy that may cover McConnell’s claim.