December 21, 2011

Can Municipalities and Building Inspectors Be Held Liable for Negligently Issuing Certificate of Occupancies?

Many residents and laymen naturally assume that a municipality or building inspector that issues a certificate of occupancy should be held liable if they make a mistake or negligently issue the certificate. However, most people are surprised to learn that, as a matter of law, a municipality is not liable in tort for negligently granting a certificate of occupancy.

In Fiduccia v. Summit Hill Constr. Co., 109 N.J. Super. 249 (Cty. Ct. 1970), the court has the occasion to address the very question of whether a municipality may be held liable to a landowner for negligence in granting a certificate of occupancy. The court concluded that it could not.

The facts of the case are quite straightforward. Defendant builder built a home for plaintiff homeowner for which the municipality issued a certificate of occupancy. The homeowner then instituted suit against the builder and municipality alleging that the builder improperly graded the land and failed in other respects to construct the home properly, and that the municipality was negligent in the issuance of the certificate of occupancy.

Municipal power to issue the certificate is created by N.J.S. 40:48-1(13) which gives a municipality power to “regulate and control the construction, erection, alteration and repair of buildings and structures of every kind within the municipality”. The court reiterated the American rule that judicial, legislative, and administrative officers are not generally liable for injurious consequences of discretionary action or nonaction. The court then noted that while the issuance of a certificate of occupancy does not involve planning or policy functions, it does entail the exercise of discretion. Not only must the building inspector determine whether there has been compliance with building regulations and health regulations, but whether the structure complies with the requirements of zoning ordinances. The court concluded that it seemed improper to expose a municipality to the possibility of tort liability for errors in the exercising of such judgment of building inspectors, especially since it is responsible for the acts of all of its agents.

Addressing the public policy concerns, the court noted that the certificate of occupancy is merely a testimonial that the property is being used in compliance with applicable ordinances. It is issued for the protection of the municipality as a whole, not for the benefit of the landowner. In what might appear as perversion of logic, the court stated that while the building inspector must use due care in the performance of his functions, his obligation is to see to it that there has been no violation of municipal ordinances, not to insure that the building has been constructed in such manner as to protect the landowner. If, incidentally, the landowner benefits from the activities of the building inspector, this does not give him the right to rely upon the certificate of occupancy for proof of proper construction. For this, the landowner can protect himself by contract. The court did not find anything in the enabling statute or the ordinance to indicate that there is an intent to protect the landowner against failure of the building inspector to perform properly, or an assumption by the municipality of such an obligation.

In adding the proverbial last nail on the coffin, the court cited approvingly to other jurisdictions that have considered the issue and concluded that municipalities are not liable for the negligence of building inspectors in the performance of their duties. Accordingly, the court concluded that in the analogous situation of liability of a municipality for issuance of a building permit, the municipality is not liable for negligence.

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April 16, 2009

Expansion of the New Jersey Consumer Fraud Act

The New Jersey Supreme Court announced a sweeping expansion of the NJ Consumer Fraud Act, N.J.S.A. 56:8-2 ("CFA"), to include work done by contractors performing interior work on new construction. In Czar Inc. Heath, A-114-07, decided 3/13/09, the Supreme Court ruled 6-1 that new homeowners who act as their own general contractors for interior finish work have a right to assert claims under the CFA against the Czar, Inc ("Czar"), the subcontractor responsible for doing installation of kitchen cabinets, doors, chair railing and other interior finishes.

The owners of the home were unhappy with the subcontractor's work and withheld $80,000 from the bill. When they were sued by the subcontractor, the owners counterclaimed based on, among other things, violations of the CFA. Czar moved to dismiss the CFA claim arguing that HOW and its implementing regulations specifically exclude application of the CFA because this case involved "construction of a new residence" . The trial court agreed and dismissed the CFA claim.

The Appellate Division reversed the trial court holding that the exemption for construction of a new residence in the home improvement regulations under HOW did not apply to the work of the subcontractor. The Appellate Division panel reviewed the Contractor's Registration Act ("CRA") and noted that it regulates contractors who are involved in the home improvement business. The CRA exempts from its reach any person who is required to register under the New Home Warranty and Builder's Registration Act ("HOW") and who were already subject to a registration requirement. The Appellate Division reconciled the regulatory schemes set forth in the CRA and HOW, noting that HOW created a warranty program and an election of remedies by the homeowner. By contrast, instead of requiring warranties, CRA requires insurance and disclosures and, through its implementing regulations, defines unlawful practices which are punishable under the CFA.

The Court noted that Czar had not registered as a new home builder under HOW and had not provided the required warranties. The Court refused to allow Czar to simultaneously escape the requirements for the warranty under HOW while also escaping from the registration requirements of the CRA and the remedies afforded to consumers protected by the CRA. Essentially, the Court declined to allow Czar to have its cake and eat it too. Since Czar did not register as a builder of new homes under HOW, the Court rejected its argument that it was involved in building new homes. Czar therefore did not fall within the ambit of HOW, was not entitled to the safe harbor of the exclusion for new home builders and was subject to the CFA.

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February 26, 2009

Fourth and Fifth Circuits Reign in “Business Risk” Doctrine: Rulings in Favor of Coverage Under General Contractors’ CGL Insurance Policies Add Clarity, Signal Return to “Plain Language”

The "business risk" doctrine has become a fixture of insurance coverage law, with profound implications for insured contractors and plaintiff property owners involved in construction-defect litigation. Concisely stated, the doctrine holds that “faulty workmanship standing alone, resulting in damage only to the work product itself. . .” falls outside the ambit of coverage provided by a CGL policy. Firemen's Ins. Co. of Newark v. National Union Fire Ins. Co., 387 N.J.Super. 434, 449 (App. Div. 2006) (citations and internal quotation marks omitted). See also 4 Bruner & O'Connor Construction Law § 11:37.

 
A review of the decisional law advancing this principle reveals a lack of consensus with respect to its rationale and application. A particularly uneven treatment of the “business risk” distinction is found in cases where damages are confined to an insured contractor’s work product but extend, qualitatively, beyond mere faulty workmanship. Consider the following example:
 
A residential developer undertakes the construction of a wood-framed apartment building. The exterior of the building is clad in a synthetic stucco system, which, due to faulty workmanship, allows water infiltration into the building’s main walls. This water infiltration, in turn, causes damage to contiguous building materials (stud framing, sheathing, interior finishes, etc.), which are otherwise defect-free. No damage is sustained beyond the building itself.
 
Purchasers of the building file suit against the developer seeking recovery for (1) the cost of replacing the defective synthetic stucco system; and (2) the cost of repairing the consequential damages to the underlying building materials.
 
The developer submits to its insurer a claim for defense and indemnity under a CGL policy covering “property damage” caused by an “occurrence” and featuring the standard “business risk” exclusions.

 

A reoccurring controversy in insurance coverage law is whether the damages in item 2—the cost of repairing consequential loss stemming from a defective component in the insured’s work product—are covered under a CGL policy. To the extent such damages affect only the “work product itself,” they would seem, at least facially, to come within the preclusive ambit of the “business risk” doctrine—they are not damage to “other” or “third-party” property. However, a more thoroughgoing analysis, as presented in two recent Federal Circuit opinions—Stanley Martin Companies, Inc. v. Ohio Cas. Group, 2009 WL 367589 (4th  Cir. Feb. 12, 2009) and Mid-Continent Casualty Co., v. JHP Development, Inc., --- F.3d ----, 2009 WL 189886 (5th Cir. Jan. 28, 2009)—leads to a different conclusion. These cases shed new light on the contours and limitations of the “business risk” doctrine, distinguishing between the defects in an insured’s work product, which generally are excluded from coverage, and the consequential injuries stemming from those defects to other parts of the same work product. According to the recent decisions, the latter category of damages is not necessarily excluded.

 
In Stanley Martin, decided February 12, 2009, the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals determined that damages caused by defective trusses supplied by a subcontractor and used in the construction of new townhouses constituted a covered “occurrence” within the meaning of the general contractor’s CGL policy. In keeping with the standard coverage form, the policy at issue defined “occurrence” as “an accident, including continuous or repeated exposure to substantially the same general harmful conditions.” Stanley Martin, supra, at 1. The underlying litigation stemmed from mold damage, originating from the defective trusses, and spreading to other, non-defective, components of the buildings. No damage was sustained beyond the building itself.

 
Applying Virginia law, the lower court had determined that the alleged damages did not come within the scope of the relevant policy because the general contractor’s “remediation costs arose out of damage to [its] own ‘work’ caused by the faulty workmanship of its subcontractor[.]” Id. at 2. This exigency, in the court’s view, “was not ‘unexpected’ or an ‘accident.’” Id. It was an anticipated, and therefore uninsured, risk of doing business.
 

In the decision reversing the lower court’s ruling, the Court of Appeals confronted a divergence of opinion in the Fourth Circuit with respect to the proper application of the “business risk” principle to such circumstances. Four years prior, the Fourth Circuit had addressed a similar set of facts in Travelers Indemnity Co. of America v. Miller Building Corp., 142 F. App’x 147 (4th Cir. 2005). Apparently relying on the “business risk” distinction, the Miller court held that the consequential injuries to the building, which “allegedly [were] a result of the subcontractor’s defective performance,” were confined to the building itself and, therefore, “not considered to be ‘unexpected’ or caused by an ‘occurrence.’” Stanley Martin, supra, at 2 (quoting Miller, supra, at 149) (internal quotation marks omitted). Because, in the court’s view, the damage to the general contractor’s work did not constitute an “occurrence,” it did not trigger the insurers duty to indemnify.

 
The Fourth Circuit reached the opposite conclusion a year later in French v. Assurance Co. of America, 448 F.3d 693 (4th Cir. 2006). In that case, the court distinguished between the subcontractor’s defective work and the damage caused to the surrounding components, which were, in themselves, defect-free. The coverage dispute stemmed from the circumstances presented in the introductory fact pattern—a residential developer hired a subcontractor to clad the exterior of a new home with synthetic stucco system known as “Exterior Insulation Finishing System” (“EIFS”). Defects in the EIFS allowed moisture intrusion that caused damage to the home’s underlying structure. While acknowledging that the subcontractor’s defective work was, in and of itself, an excluded business risk, the court determined that the damage caused by that defective work to the surrounding non-defective components did constitute “an accident, and therefore a [covered] occurrence under the initial grant of coverage of the [CGL policy].” Stanley Martin, supra, at 2 (quoting French, supra, at 704-05) (internal quotation marks omitted). In reaching this conclusion, the court reasoned that, “[a]s delivered per the construction contract,” the surrounding components were “defect-free,” such that their subsequent damage was unexpected. Id.

 
Faced with these diverging opinions, the Stanley Martin court rejected Miller and endorsed French as the controlling iteration of the “business risk” distinction. The bifurcation of the insured’s work between defective and non-defective components was, in the court’s view, well “grounded in the plain language of the policy and the interplay between the policy’s broad definition of an ‘occurrence’ and the policy’s ‘your work’ exclusion” which excepted subcontractor work. See Stanley Martin, supra, at 2 (quoting French, supra, at 703 (internal quotation marks omitted). At oral argument, the insurer in Stanley Martin tried to distinguish French on the basis that the moisture intrusion that damaged the home’s non-defective structure was a separate event that could constitute an occurrence. The mold at issue in Stanley Martin, on the other hand, was present in the townhouses as soon as the trusses were installed. The court found this argument unpersuasive, characterizing it as a “labored distinction [that] places more weight on the policy language than it can bear.” Id. at 2. Because there was “no allegation that the general contractor either expected or intended that its subcontractor would perform defective work or that the spread of mold beyond the defective trusses was expected or intended,” the court determined that these events were “occurrences” capable of triggering coverage under CGL policy. Id. at  3 (internal quotation marks and citations omitted).

 
The Fifth Circuit’s January 28, 2009 decision in Mid-Continent also addressed the application of the “business risk” principle in the context of a construction defect case. Mid-Continent focused, not on the meaning of the word “occurrence,” but rather on the scope of the standard “business risk” exclusion for damage to “[t]hat particular part of any property that must be restored, repaired or replaced because ‘your work’ was incorrectly performed on it.” Id. at 3. Like the Stanley Martin court, the Fifth Circuit emphasized a distinction between the defective and non-defective components of the insured’s work product. Factually, the coverage dispute stemmed from an insured developer’s construction of a four-story, wood-framed residential building with inadequate water-sealants and retaining walls. As a consequence of these deficiencies, large quantities of water penetrated the interior of the structure through the ceilings and walls, under doors, and at other points, damaging contiguous building materials, which were, in themselves, defect-free. After receiving a demand for defense and indemnity, the developer’s CGL insurer filed a declaratory judgment action seeking, among other things, a declaration that coverage was barred by the above-quoted “business risk” exclusion. Id. at 3. The Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals framed the issue in the following manner: 
 
Whether the exclusion bars recovery for damage to any part of a property worked on by a contractor that is caused by the contractor’s defective work, including damage to parts of he property that were the subject of only non-defective work, or whether the exclusion only applies to property damage to parts of the property that were themselves the subject of the defective work.
 

Id. at 6. Examining the plain language of the exclusion, the court determined that only property damage “to parts of the property that were themselves the subjects of the defective work [was] excluded.” Id. at  6 (emphasis added). The court rejected as unpersuasive the approach taken in another jurisdiction in which consequential damages to non-defective components were necessarily deemed an excluded “business risk.” Id. at 7 (declining to follow Century Indemnity Co. v. Golden Hills Builders, Inc., 384 S.C. 559 (2002)). Such an approach, the court reasoned, improperly subordinates analysis of the policy’s language to a presumption about the underlying purpose of CGL coverage. Id. at 7. “The mere fact that a policy is designated as a ‘commerical general liability’ insurance policy is not grounds for overlooking the actual language of that policy.” Id. The court therefore cabined its discussion to the terms of the policy before it and determined that the consequential losses in question went beyond the “particular part of the [the contractor’s] work” containing defects. Thus, the “business risk” exclusion was inapplicable and coverage obtained.
 

Stanley Martin and Mid-Continent continue a discernable trend in favor of coverage where an insured contractor’s faulty workmanship results in damage to otherwise non-defective work product. While it can generally be said the faulty workmanship is, itself, an anticipated risk of doing business, the consequences flowing from such workmanship are not so easily categorized. The Fourth and Fifth Circuit decisions reflect a growing recognition across jurisdictions that broad-stroked applications of the “business risk” rule—which is essentially an insurance industry trade concept—must not supercede analysis of the plain language of insurance contracts. See Zacarias v. Allstate Ins. Co.  168 N.J. 590, 595 (2001) (“In the first instance, the words of an insurance policy are to be given their plain, ordinary meaning.”) See also 4 Bruner & O'Connor Construction Law § 11:37. Absent a particular policy exclusion, the logical basis for differentiating between consequential loss to an insured’s work product and consequential loss to other property remains tenuous, and all but a shrinking minority of jurisdictions have either abandoned or qualified the distinction.

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December 12, 2007

Property Owner Did Not Waive Arbitration Clause by Participating in Lawsuit

In an unpublished case, the Appellate Division recently affirmed the trial court’s decision that defendant property owner did not waive the arbitration clause of its AIA construction contract with plaintiff construction company by participating in plaintiff lawsuit for a year before invoking the arbitration clause. Delam Construction Corp. v. 15 Thornton Road, L.L.C., A-0582-06T1 (App. Div., December 10, 2007. After weighing a variety of factors, including plaintiff’s incurring the expenses of litigation, plaintiff’s bringing a lawsuit although it must have known of the arbitration clause, and defendant’s “playing fast and loose” with the court until invoking the arbitration clause on the eve of trial, the court concluded that plaintiff would not be prejudiced by remitting the case to an arbitrator since the discovery accomplished during the pendency of the lawsuit would be useful in the arbitration.

Neither party disputed that $187,368 plus interest remained unpaid to plaintiff following its completion of construction of defendant’s building. The parties had signed an AIA standard construction contract, which required the parties to submit their disputes to arbitration. Nonetheless, plaintiff sued on the contract in May 2005, amending its complaint in October 2005.

In its answer to the amended complaint, filed in December 2005, defendant counterclaimed for damages attributable to construction deficiencies in plaintiff’s work. Nonetheless, in October 2005, in response to plaintiff’s interrogatories, defendant certified that it had retained no experts to offer opinions on the alleged construction deficiencies. The discovery end date was April 24, 2006.

One month later, plaintiff moved for partial summary judgment, citing defendant’s lack of expert testimony regarding the alleged construction difficulties. On June 6, 2006, defendant responded by amending its interrogatory answers to disclose the names of two experts and providing copies of their reports. Plaintiff moved to bar defendant’s experts since they were named after the discovery end date. The motion’s return date was June 28, 2006, the scheduled trial date.

The trial court’s decision emerged from a blur of motion practice. The court heard oral argument on plaintiff’s summary judgment motion on June 23. On June 27, 2006, the court denied the summary judgment motion pending the outcome of the motion to bar defendant’s experts but granted defendant’s motion to set aside plaintiff’s construction lien. Thereafter, defendant withdrew its supplementary interrogatory answers naming its construction experts.

When the parties appeared for trial on June 28, 2006, plaintiff sought to postpone the trial to allow reconsideration of its summary judgment motion in light of defendant’s withdrawal of its experts. The judge adjourned the trial to allow plaintiff to re-file its summary judgment motion and defendant to file whatever new motions it deemed appropriate.

On June 30, plaintiff moved for partial summary judgment. On July 19, defendant retained new counsel. On July 29, defendant cross-moved to, among other things, dismiss plaintiff’s complaint based on the parties’ contractual duty to arbitrate their differences. Defendant certified that it had been unaware that its prior counsel had missed the deadline for naming its expert witnesses.

After hearing oral argument on August 17, the trial judge decided that the matter should be submitted to arbitration even though defendant’s original counsel had pursued the unusual strategy of “neither raising the arbitration clause [nor] presenting any expert reports.” The court order declared that plaintiff’s summary judgment motion was moot, granted defendant’s motion to dismiss plaintiff’s amended complaint, reinstated plaintiff’s construction lien and ordered defendant to file its demand for arbitration by August 31, 2006. Defendant demanded arbitration on August 30, 2006.

Plaintiff appealed, contending that the trial court’s decision caused it undue prejudice. It argued that defendant waived its right to arbitration by participating in the lawsuit, by failing to raise arbitration as an affirmative defense, and by failing to demand arbitration at an earlier date. Defendant responded by citing contractual language requiring the waiver of any right under the contract to be written.

The appellate court acknowledged the trial court’s reliance on Wasserstein v. Guild Contracting Corp., 261 N.J. Super. 277, 290 (App. Div.), certif. denied, 133 N.J. 440 (1993), which recognized a trial judge’s right to refer a case to arbitration at any time before judgment. Nonetheless, the appellate court viewed its task as reconciling two other competing lines of authority. The first line, including cases such as Ohio Casualty Ins. Co. v. Benson, 87 N.J. 191, 199 (1981) and Marchak v. Claridge Commons, Inc., 134 N.J. 275, 281 (1993), favors arbitration as a cheap and speedy alternative to litigation. The other line, including Wein v. Morris, 388 N.J. Super. 640 (App. Div. 2006), certif. granted, 190 N.J. 254 (2007), holds that active and prolonged litigation of disputes will result in the court’s finding that the parties have waived their right to compel arbitration.

The court resolved its dilemma by reference to Hoxworth v. Blinder, Robinson & Co., Inc., 980 F.2d 912, 925 (3d Cir. 1992), which recognized prejudice as the relevant factor in determining whether or not the right to arbitration has been waived. Here, said the appellate court, plaintiff was not greatly prejudiced since the knowledge gained during discovery would be useful in the arbitration proceeding. Further, to the extent that any prejudice does result from remitting the parties to arbitration, plaintiff shared the fault by bring the action in derogation of the contract. Accordingly, the appellate court affirmed

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October 16, 2006

Case Study - Water Intrusion

STARK & STARK CASE STUDY

CASE NAME:
“ABC” Condominium Association v. Lookout Builders, LLC, et. al., BER-L-10051-02.*

*In order to preserve our client’s interests in confidentiality, we have used the fictitious designation “ABC” Condominium Association

STARK & STARK’S CLIENT:
ABC Condominium Association

CASE TYPE:
Construction defect litigation

CASE FACTS:
The ABC Condominium is a forty-two unit, six story condominium building located in Hackensack, New Jersey. The exterior of the condominium building was clad with brick facing on the first story with the balance of the structure clad with an Exterior Insulation and Finish System (“EIFS”) manufactured by Senergy. The building has a front plaza finished with brick pavers and planters and a garage/parking area below the building. The roof on the building is a flat style, EPDM roof system.

The ABC Condominium Association is a non-profit corporation comprised of the owners of the condominium units that was established to provide the management, administration and maintenance of the Common Elements of the Association and to promote the health, safety and welfare of the unit owners of the Association.

Construction of the ABC Condominium began in 1988/89 and was completed sometime in late 1991, early 1992. The Sponsor of the condominium was Lookout Builders, LLC. After the construction of the condominium was completed, Lookout Builders controlled the building through majority ownership of units within the building up until approximately May, 2001, when Lookout sold all the remaining units it owned and turned control of the Board of Trustees of the Association over to the independent unit owners via a process known as transition.

The condominium experienced significant water intrusion problems almost from the date of its completion. Unit owners suffered from water leaks through sub-standard windows and in ceiling areas throughout the building. The front plaza area of the condominium, due to improper waterproofing, allowed water to penetrate into the underground garage area, causing significant water damage. Despite multiple complaints from unit owners from 1991 up to 2001, the water intrusion problems were never properly addressed.

After control of the Board of Trustees of the Association was turned over the independent unit owners in 2001, the Board retained Stark & Stark. Shortly thereafter, several engineering firms were brought in to investigate and diagnose the water intrusion problems with the building. Those studies revealed multiple construction defects and damages in the building including improperly installed EIFS cladding, defective windows that were leaking water into the exterior walls, improper waterproofing of the front plaza and associated retaining walls, high levels of water intrusion into and behind the EIFS cladding causing damage to the gypsum sheathing on the building, high levels of mold growth inside the walls of the building, improper installation of aspects of the EPDM roof, as well as other problems.

THE LAWSUIT:
Stark & Stark’s Construction Litigation Department filed suit on behalf of the ABC Condominium Association in December of 2002. The suit was filed to pursue damages against responsible parties for the cost of correcting all damages to the building and all construction defects.

The defendants in the suit included Lookout Builders, LLC, the Sponsor, Impact Realty Associates, a management company, Senergy, the manufacturer of the EIFS, E.Robinson Group, the distributor of the EIFS, Dorwin Manufacturing, the manufacturer of windows used in the building, J.P. Patti Roofing, a roofing contractor, Concrete Construction Company, a contractor that performed caulking and maintenance work on the building, and several individuals who were appointed by the Sponsor to be Trustees for the Association from 1991 to 2000.

THE RESULT:
Stark & Stark’s Construction Litigation Department settled the lawsuit on behalf of the ABC Condominium Association for a total recovery of $1,645,000.00. The recovery will be used by the Association to correct the damage to the building.

If you would like more information, contact John Randy Sawyer, Esq., at (609) 895-7349, or jsawyer@stark-stark.com.

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