Construction Law Blog
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Whether you negotiate your own subcontracts or rely on your lawyer to do the heavy lifting at contract time, a savvy subcontractor should understand the basic purpose of common subcontract provisions, and be prepared to negotiate for fair and commercially reasonable terms. While most sophisticated subcontractors are skilled at negotiating the core terms of a subcontract—scope of work, price, and time—a few simple but less obvious tweaks to common subcontract terms and conditions can go a long way to protect a subcontractor from unfair results when a dispute arises.
From the desk of an experienced construction lawyer, below are the first three of the top five “boilerplate” provisions that subcontractors too often overlook during contract negotiations, along with tips on language to include and to avoid.
The Washington State Court of Appeals recently addressed an excavation contractor’s responsibilities under the Underground Utilities Damage Prevention Act (UUDPA), RCW 19.122. That statute was enacted in 2011 and imposed certain statutory duties on parties involved with projects requiring excavation.
In this case, Titan Earthworks, LLC contracted with the City of Federal Way to perform certain street improvements including installation of a new traffic signal. During the process of excavating for the traffic signal, Titan drilled into an energized underground Puget Sound Energy power line. PSE sought damages from Titan and Titan sued the City of Federal Way.
The Tunnel Boring Machine (“TBM”) known as “Bertha,” built by Hitachi Zosen Corp in Osaka, Japan, was the world’s largest TBM at 57.5 ft. in diameter. The TBM was built to drill the Seattle SR 99 Viaduct replacement tunnel. Seattle Tunnel Partners (“STP”) has a contract with the Washington State Department of Transportation (WSDOT) to dig the two-mile tunnel which is now complete.
In December of 2013, tunneling was stopped ostensibly because a 119 ft.-long, eight-inch diameter steel well casing halted the TBM. See 2/15 Blog “Bertha is Stuck and She Remains Mired in Controversy.” Reports are that WSDOT installed the pipe in 2002 to measure groundwater levels and the pipe was allegedly mentioned in the reference material provided to bidders. STP had assumed that the pipe had been removed until the steel casing got stuck in Bertha’s cutting teeth, halting progress. See 1/30/14 Blog “Big Bertha Stuck: Differing Site Condition Principles Revisited.”
Subcontractor Allowed to Sue Designer for Negligence: California Courts Chip Away at the Economic Loss Doctrine (Independent Duty Rule)
An architect may have to pay over $1 million to a subcontractor who was contractually obligated to rely on the designer’s plans – even though the architect was not a party to the contract. That was the ruling in U.S. f/u/b/o Penn Air Control, Inc. v. Bilbro Constr. Co., Inc. The dispute involved a $7.3 million design-build contract award to Bilbro Construction (“Bilbro”) to renovate a facility for the Naval Facilities Engineering Command in Monterey, California.
Bilbro hired an architect (“FPBA”) to serve as the designer of record and provide all the architectural design services. FPBA’s design team included an acoustical sub-consultant (Sparling). The general contractor (design builder) also retained Alpha Mechanical (Alpha) as the mechanical electrical and plumbing (“MEP”) design/build subcontractor.
The implied duty of good faith and fair dealing is implied in every contract, including construction contracts. Generally speaking, this implied duty requires parties cooperate with one another so that they each obtain the full benefit of their contracted bargain. Recently, the Court of Appeals (Division II) in Nova Contracting, Inc. v. City of Olympia discussed this duty’s application to a public works contract.
In early 2014, the City of Olympia published an invitation for bids to replace a culvert that conveyed a creek underneath a paved bike trail. Nova Contracting was awarded the Project. The specifications required that Nova submit a number of submittals, the approval of which was required before Nova could commence work. The contract also provided that the City’s decision with respect to these submittals would be final and that Nova would bear all risk and costs of delays caused by non-approval of any submittals.
For several years, the requirements for which parties must be named in a lien foreclosure action when a release of lien bond is in place have been cloudy. RCW 60.04 et seq., the “mechanics’ lien” or “construction lien” statute, provides protection for a party or person who provides labor, materials, or equipment to a construction project. That person or party, if not paid, can file a lien against the construction project property to secure recovery. As the lien impacts the property by “clouding title” and could potentially result in foreclosure of the property, the statute sets forth strict requirements with respect to timing, notice, and parties. For example, the lien must be recorded within 90 days of the person or party’s last day of work or materials or equipment supplied, and the lien claimant must then give a copy of the claim of lien to the owner or reputed owner within 14 days of the lien recording. RCW 60.04.081.
A New AAA Study Confirms that Arbitration is Faster to Resolution Than Court – And the Difference Can be Assessed Monetarily
There has been a perception among some litigators that arbitration is more expensive than court due to several factors. Among them:
- The “upfront” costs are higher in that filing fees for arbitration exceed those in court. Arbitrators are paid, whether hourly or a flat rate, and the three arbitration panels can become very expensive.
- Some arbitration clauses preserve statutory discovery rights, basically defeating the advantage of a simplified arbitration process. Discovery wars are extremely expensive. Depositions are the most costly of discovery, and in arbitration, as opposed to court, depositions are limited or do not exist.
- Some arbitration clauses integrate the statutory rules of civil procedure, making arbitration almost equivalent to litigation. These types of clauses do the parties no favors
Another court in Washington was asked to apply the Mike M. Johnson[i] decision to a contractor’s claim for extra work. This time it was the Division III Court of Appeals in Washington. The Division III Court of Appeals, which covers all of Eastern Washington, had a hand in the original Mike M. Johnson case. That court is the intermediary court that ruled in favor of the contractor in Mike M. Johnson. It held that there were issues of fact as to whether Spokane County, in the Mike M. Johnson case, had actual notice of the changed conditions and, thus, waived the notice and claim procedures that the County was attempting to rely upon. The Division III Court of Appeals was later overruled by the Washington State Supreme Court, which held as a matter of law that the County of Spokane had not waived the notice and claim procedures. This time around, the Division III Court of Appeals, for the most part, ruled in favor of the public entity and followed the Mike M. Johnson decision.
As discussed in previous blog posts, a Termination for Convenience (“TforC”) clause allows a party (generally, the owner or general contractor) to stop work for just about any reason without having to pay for anticipated profit or unperformed work. Read more here and here. Recently, the Washington Court of Appeals decided SAK & Associates, Inc. v. Ferguson Construction, Inc. in which the Court held that all that is required to trigger a TforC clause is a statement that termination is being invoked for the convenience of the terminating party. Read more here.
Contractors Should Limit Their Exposure to Consequential Damages and Ensure Liquidated Damages are the Owner’s Sole and Exclusive Remedy
There is some confusion in construction about the terms “liquidated damages” and “consequential damages,” so brief definitions are in order:
- “Liquidated damages” (sometimes called “stipulated damages”) are damage amounts the parties designate in the contract for the injured party (Owner) to collect as compensation for breach of contract, and are someimtes tied to project completion or milestone dates.
- “Consequential damages” are losses that do not flow directly and immediately from the breach of contract, but result indirectly from the breach. For example, in hotel construction, if the hotel does not open on time, consequential damages could be the revenue lost by the hotel operator.
A Contractor should be aware of the relationship between liquidated damages and consequential damages. These concepts are mutually exclusive. Owners should provide for one or the other, but not both. Liquidated damages are essentially a type of consequential damages, but are intended to provide certainty by removing the difficulty of proving damages. Generally, liquidated damages should replace consequential damages, not supplement them.