Construction Law Watch

Oregon Federal District Court Applies Recent Developments in Common Law Indemnity to Strict Product Liability Claims

Posted in Negligence, Product Liability

Earlier this year, the Supreme Court issued Eclectic Investment, LLC v. Patterson, 357 Or 25, 346 P3d 468, modified, 357 Or 327 (2015). Eclectic has fundamentally affected pleadings and third-party practice in multi-party tort actions. Previously, it was standard for third-party defendants without a contractual relationship to sue each other for common law indemnity and contribution. Where liability was closely related or possibly overlapping, this was a negotiation tool and a potentially valuable claim. Not anymore. By confirming the elimination of common law indemnity for negligence claims in Oregon, the decision has prompted much argument and motion practice. Parties are now seeking to extend the reach of the several liability statute, ORS 31.610, to eliminate common law indemnity and contribution claims in other contexts.

Of recent note is Wyland v. W. W. Grainger, Inc., No. 3:13-CV-00863-AA, 2015 WL 3657265 (D Or June 11, 2015). There, the plaintiff, a mechanic, was injured on the job when a grinder broke apart. The plaintiff sued the distributor for negligence and strict products liability, and the distributor sought indemnity from the suppliers. The suppliers moved for summary judgment, arguing that Eclectic precluded the distributor from recovering common law indemnity. The Court held that Eclectic did preclude the claim as to negligence, but not as to strict liability. The holding raises at least two issues of note. Continue Reading

Oregon Court of Appeals Reaffirms that Engineer Lien Claimant Must Provide Notice of Right to Lien to Perfect and Foreclose Lien

Posted in Lien Rights in Oregon, Oregon Court of Appeals

The Oregon Court of Appeals recently issued a decision confirming the pre-lien notice requirements necessary to perfect a lien in Oregon. The case, known as Multi/Tech Engineering Services, Inc. v. Innovative Design & Construction, LLC, 274 Or App 389 (2015), discussed whether a lien recorded by Multi/Tech for engineering services could be foreclosed where Multi/Tech may have failed to provide the project owner a notice of right to lien.

The case involved the development and construction of a commercial project in Salem owned by Adler Commercial Properties (ACP). The project owner retained the services of Innovative and Gene Pfeifer to assist in the development of the project, who in turn hired Multi/Tech to provide various engineering services. Following Innovative’s and Pfeifer’s failure to pay Multi/Tech’s final invoice, Multi/Tech recorded a lien identifying ACP (and other related entities) as the project owners and Innovative and Pfeifer as the lien debtors. Thereafter, the trial court granted a judgment of lien foreclosure to Multi/Tech. ACP, among others, appealed asserting that Multi/Tech failed to properly perfect its lien.

The Court of Appeals confirmed that under ORS 87.010(5) professionals providing engineering services, such as Multi/Tech, were generally authorized to lien the project for which such services were supplied. The Court went on further, however, to emphasize that “[i]n order to perfect one of the construction liens authorized by ORS 87.010, including a lien under ORS 87.010(5), a person who is entitled to a lien ordinarily must provide the owner of the property subject to the lien with notice of the person’s right to a lien.” Citing ORS 87.021(3)(a), the Court cautioned that “[f]ailure to provide the notice – when notice is required – means that the lien is not perfected and is not valid.” Continue Reading

Across the Spectrum: Utah’s Recent Move Toward a Proper Interpretation of “Occurrence” In Commercial General Liability Policies

Posted in Construction Defect, Insurance Coverage, Utah

Fortunately for Utah policyholders, a recent District of Utah decision has continued the trend toward liberalizing Commercial General Liability (“CGL”) coverage in Utah. In The Cincinnati Ins. Co. v. Spectrum Devel. Corp, the District of Utah held that defective construction can be an “occurrence” so as to trigger coverage under a CGL policy.

CGL policies generally cover amounts that an insured “becomes legally obligated to pay as damages because of property damage” caused by an “occurrence.” The standard definition of “occurrence” is “an accident, including continuous or repeated exposure to substantially the same general harmful conditions.” Utah courts have had considerable difficulty determining whether defective construction is an “accident.”

The previous rule in Utah was that conduct, and the result of conduct, is not accidental if it is deliberate or intentional, even if the result was neither deliberate nor intentional. Until recently, Utah courts borrowed the reasoning of the Washington Court of Appeals, which put it this way:

 [A]n accident is never present when a deliberate act is performed, unless some additional, unexpected, independent, and unforeseen happening occurs which produces or brings about the result[.]

Safeco Ins. Co. of Am. v. Dotts, 38 Wash.App. 382, 685 P.2d 632, 633-34 (1984).

Two previous Utah cases, Rosenberg and Geary, illustrate the above rule. In Geary, the Utah Court of Appeals held that bodily injury resulting from a shotgun blast was not accidental because the shooter deliberately pulled the trigger, whether or not he had any intention to harm the victim. See State Farm Fire & Cas. Co. v. Geary, 869 P.2d 952, 955-6 (Utah Ct. App. 1994).  Similarly, in Rosenberg, bodily injury resulting from a cherry bomb was not accidental because the bomb was deliberately and intentionally thrown. See Fire Ins. Exchange v. Rosenberg, 930 P.2d 1202, 1205 (Utah Ct. App. 1997). Continue Reading

Just What Is a Capital Improvement and Does a Judgment Against an HOA Have Preclusive Effect on the HOA’S Directors and Members?

Posted in CC&Rs, HOA, Oregon Court of Appeals, Uncategorized

Recently, the Oregon Court of Appeals issued a decision that may have far reaching impacts for communities looking at whether a particular project constitutes a “capital improvement” under their Covenants, Conditions and Restrictions (more commonly known as CC&Rs). The case, known as Eagle-Air Estates Homeowners Ass’n, Inc. v. Haphey, 272 Or App 651 (2015), involved whether an assessment levied by a homeowners association to pay for certain attorney fees incurred in a prior litigation constitutes a “capital improvement,” and therefore a “special assessment” under the HOA’s CC&Rs.

Relying on Black’s Law Dictionary, the Court of Appeals found that the term capital improvement “is commonly understood to mean a permanent structural improvement to property.” (Emphasis added). The Court also cited to Webster’s Dictionary’s definition of “capital expenditure,” as further explanation of the phrase, noting that a “capital expenditure” refers to “long-term additions or betterments properly chargeable to a capital assets account.”

After analyzing the above two definitions, along with the language in the HOA’s CC&Rs regarding other types of specific capital improvements, the Court of Appeals held that “[a]n assessment to pay for attorney fees in litigation. . . is not the type of expense that an ordinary person would regard as a ‘capital improvement’.” As a result, the assessment did not constitute a “special assessment” under the HOA’s CC&Rs and was therefore not subject to any temporal limits as to how long the assessment may be issued. Continue Reading

Phantom Menace: Beware of Unknown Unknowns in Contracts

Posted in Construction Contracts

Written contracts generally provide a very stable method of making promises enforceable. Reducing all promises to a single self-contained writing reduces surprises and provides a single yardstick to measure compliance. Unfortunately, many contracts today – especially construction contracts – tend to be composites; assemblages of different documents into a single contract. We’ll call this a “Compound Contract” for ease of reference. Compound Contracts have the benefit of avoiding excessive cut-and-paste work, but also have a nasty potential side effect: parties may not know what is in their contract. Thus, contractors and owners are sometimes surprised when they seek to enforce certain promises, only to learn that those promises were altered by attachments to the main contract form.

Perhaps the simplest form of Compound Contract is a one-page invoice or bid with a statement at the bottom that says, “subject to terms and conditions on reverse side.” Flip the document over, and you’ll find a clump of fine print, which may add contour, nuance, or red tape to what was otherwise a clear exchange of money for goods or services.

The more complicated Compound Contract may have “terms and conditions” from numerous other documents intended to be attached to the contract itself, and all of which alter the parties’ promises in ways large and small. Today’s Compound Contracts can be several inches thick, making substantive review difficult. Continue Reading

Recent Oregon Supreme Court Case Suggests ‘Limited Liability’ Of LLCs Not So Limited

Posted in Construction Defect, LLC

The Oregon Supreme Court recently decided a case with serious implications to the liability of LLCs and their members. Taking note of the case, Cortez v. Nacco Material Handling Group will enable aggrieved homeowners and their attorneys to practice more effective construction defect litigation.

The plaintiff, Antonio Cortez, worked for a lumber mill organized as an LLC. He was badly injured when a forklift struck him during a stroll across company premises. Cortez received worker’s compensation benefits and then opted to go up the chain, suing the LLC’s owner and sole member manager, a company called Swanson Group, Inc.

Cortez’s principal allegations were twofold, only one of which is addressed here. He argued that Swanson was liable in negligence and under Oregon’s Employer Liability Law for failing to take safety precautions to protect employees. The trial court offered a cold reception, entering summary judgment in favor of Swanson. The court of appeals reversed and affirmed the trial court, each in part.

Not to be deterred, Cortez appealed again, and the Oregon Supreme Court stepped in to finally resolve the question. Continue Reading

Federal Court in Florida Finds Insurer Has No Duty to Defend Insured During Chapter 558 Process

Posted in Construction Defect, Florida, Insurance Coverage

Recently, a federal district court in Florida held that the Chapter 558 process is not a “suit” under a commercial general liability policy and the insurer had no obligation to defend the insured during this process. Under Chapter 558 of the Florida Statutes, before a lawsuit can be commenced concerning construction defects, the claimant must provide notice of the claim to the contractor and provide the contractor with an opportunity to resolve the claim (often referred to as the “558 process”).

This process can be expensive as it may require the hiring of counsel and experts and entail property inspections. Normally, a contractor will send the 558 Notice to its insurer and request the insurer hire counsel to protect the contractor’s interests. In most cases, the insurers will abide. Unfortunately for one contractor, its insurer denied to do so.

In Altman Contractors, Inc. v. Crum & Forster Specialty Insurance Company, Altman Contractors, Inc. (“Altman”) was served with a Chapter 558 Notice of Claim regarding the construction of a high-rise residential condominium. Altman forward the Notice to its insurer, Crum & Forster, and demanded that Crum & Forster defend and indemnify Altman during the process. Crum & Forster denied that it had a duty to defend Altman because the matter was not in “suit.” Altman filed suit against Crum & Forster for breach of contract as well as for a declaration determining whether Crum & Forster owed Altman a duty to defend the 558 process. Both Altman and Crum & Forster filed motions for summary judgment on these issues. Continue Reading

Protecting Against Disclosure of Prior Settlement Agreements at Trial

Posted in Construction Defect, Oregon Court of Appeals

On July 22, 2015, the Court of Appeals reaffirmed its prior decision in Alfieri v. Solomon, 263 Or App 494 (2014), petition for review granted, 356 Or 516 (2014) that confidential communications made during and/or in furtherance of a mediation proceeding are protected and shall not be admitted into evidence in any subsequent adjudicatory proceeding under ORS 36.22. Yoshida’s Inc. v. Dunn Carney Allen Higgins & Tongue LLP, 272 Or App 436 (2015). ORS 36.22 states in pertinent part: Continue Reading

Florida Appellate Court Revives $15 Million Construction Claim

Posted in Condominium, Construction Defect, Florida

Can three days make a difference when filing a construction defect lawsuit? Absolutely! In Cypress Fairway Condominium v. Bergeron Construction Co. Inc., three days was the difference between the claim being time barred and timely filed.

Under Section 95.11(3)(c), Florida Statutes, an action founded on the design, planning, construction, or an improvement to real property must be commenced within ten years after the latest of four specific events: 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. Continue Reading

Oregon Bill to Revise “Certificate of Merit” Statute for Lawsuits against Architects and Engineers Should Do More to Clarify Protections

Posted in Construction Claims

The Oregon Legislature is currently considering Senate Bill 383, which would revise Oregon’s “certificate of merit” statute, ORS 31.300. The Bill has already passed through the Senate Judiciary Committee, and is now before the House Committee on Consumer Protection and Government Effectiveness. The Bill would add a requirement that a court filing against an architect or engineer include a summary or the conduct complained of, and would narrow who can certify claims against what type of disciplines. A “certificate of merit” law with clear standards and processes is more likely to achieve the goal of limiting actions against design professionals to meritorious claims. SB 383 muddies the waters, and worse, conflicts with Oregon’s Rules of Civil Procedure which lawyers must follow.

“Certificate of merit” statutes in Oregon, and other states, are designed to limit frivolous lawsuits against design professionals by requiring that the attorney filing the lawsuit certify that the attorney has consulted with another design professional who will testify to the standard of care required in the profession, and that the standard of care was breached. Senate Bill 383’s proponents wish to strengthen and clarify the Oregon statute. But Senate Bill 383 does not go far enough, and is not specific enough, to achieve what the Bill’s proponents wish to achieve. Instead, in its current form, it simply invites further litigation and questions. Worse, it conflicts with Oregon’s Rules of Civil Procedure, which attorneys must follow in Oregon. Continue Reading