Construction Law Blog
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General Construction v. Grant County PUD: Chalkboard Notice is Invalid and Engineer Cannot Waive Notice Requirements
I previously posted a blog about the General Construction v. Grant County PUD case and the Court of Appeals’ rulings regarding notice and claim procedures.[i] The General Construction case is also noteworthy for two other issues that were raised in that case.[ii] The first issue involved whether a contractual written notice requirement is satisfied when the notice is provided on a chalkboard only. The second noteworthy issue is whether the Public Utility District’s (“PUD”) own in-house engineer could waive the contractual notice and claim procedures in the PUD’s contract.
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.
Washington Court Strictly Enforces Default Provision, But a Material Breach Can Still Excuse Performance
The Washington Court of Appeals strictly enforced a default provision requiring notice and the opportunity to cure, but found that the party who failed to provide the notice could still contend a material breach occurred that excused its performance. In DC Farms LLC v. Conagra Foods Lamb Weston, Inc., a food processor was not excused from providing a contractually-required notice of default and opportunity to cure because it maintained that a farmer’s breach was incurable. 179 Wn. App. 205, 317 P.3d 543 (Div. 3, January 30, 2014). Failure to provide the notice of default and opportunity to cure was a breach of contract by the food processor.
Many contractors now carry professional liability insurance in addition to their commercial general liability insurance because of the prevalence of alternative procurement delivery methods, such as general contractor/construction manager and design-build contracts. In the wake of the recent Washington Supreme Court decision in W.G Clark Constr. Co. v. Pac. Nw. Reg'l Council of Carpenters, ___ P.3d ___ (Docket No. 88080-8) (2014), a decision by the United States District Court of Western Washington may give general contractors who do not already carry professional liability insurance another reason to think about procuring such insurance. Read more about the W.G. Clark Constr. Co. decision here.
Washington Supreme Court Overturns 30-Year Law Protecting General Contractors From Trust Fund Liens on Public Works Projects
Under Washington’s Public Works Statutes (RCW 39.08 and 60.28), general contractors who perform public works are legally required to post payment bonds and have retainage withheld from progress payments. The purpose of these laws is to protect the public entity (owner) from subcontractor and supplier claims against the public project, while preserving the interests of mechanic’s lien rights (subcontractors and suppliers are provided bond claim and retainage rights, but have no lien rights in the public property).
This is the second post in a two-part blog addressing construction contract terminations. Read our previous post on "Terminations for Convenience" here.
Lien Claimants Have a Right to be Paid Directly from the Construction Loan on Private Projects. This process is commonly referred to as a "Stop Payment Notice."
Recent Unpublished Washington Court of Appeals Opinion Concludes that Absent Waiver Language, Failure to Comply with a Contractual Claim Procedure Will Not Result in Forfeiture
This blog has frequently addressed contractual notice and claim procedures and the Mike M Johnson[i] line of decisions (for example, see blog articles from January 2, 2008, February 15, 2011, July 10, 2012). A recent unpublished decision by the Division I Court of Appeals is noteworthy because it holds that if a contract has a mandatory procedure for resolving claims, but does not state that the failure to follow that procedure will operate as a waiver of such claim, then a forfeiture will not be found despite lack of compliance.
Shepler Construction, Inc. v. Leonard,[ii] involves a residential construction dispute over a project performed in 2000 with an incredibly long litigation history dating back to 2002. The decision that is the subject of this article is the Court of Appeals’ third decision in the matter!
In 2001, the Contractor (Shepler) sent the Owner (Leonard) a letter recommending that the Owner should initiate the contractual dispute resolution process with respect to the Owner's allegations of construction defects. The Owner admittedly failed to respond and did not initiate the contractual process. The Contractor then filed a lien and brought a foreclosure action. In 2008, the Contractor obtained a Summary Judgment Order precluding the Owner from asserting counterclaims for construction defects on the grounds that the Owner failed to initiate binding arbitration as required by the parties' contract in order to resolve allegations of construction defects. That order is the subject of the appellate decision that is the subject of this article.
In dismissing the Owner's claims for construction defects, the trial court was persuaded that the Owner's breach of the agreement by failing to seek arbitration required dismissal of all of the Owner's claims for construction defects that should have been arbitrated. The Contract clause at issue provided:
If a dispute arises between owner and contractor as to the performance of contractor's obligations under this agreement, such disputes shall be resolved as follows:
Each party shall employ a contractor of his or her choice to evaluate the work completed. The contractors then will select a third contractor to act as an impartial arbiter. This contractor shall, likewise, inspect the construction to determine if the work has been performed in accordance with this agreement, applicable building codes and in a good workmanlike manner as provided hereinabove. If two of the three contractors determine that the work is not in conformity with the provisions of this agreement, then they shall state in writing the work in need of repair or replacement and contractor shall undertake to perform same as soon as reasonably practical. Contractor shall be responsible for owner's fees and costs associated with this arbitration as well as the impartial contractor's fees and costs. If no remedial work is recommended by the contractors, then the owner shall pay for the costs of the arbitration. The owner shall forthwith pay the amounts due to the contractor as established by a majority of the arbiters.
The Contractor argued to the Court of Appeals that under Absher Const. Co. v. Kent School District,[iii] and Mike M. Johnson v. County of Spokane, that the Owner's admitted failure to arbitrate its construction defect claims operated as a waiver of those claims. Division One, however, disagreed, on the grounds that unlike the contract language at issue in Absher and Mike M. Johnson, the contract between the Contractor and Owner did not explicitly provide that the failure to follow dispute resolution procedures constituted a waiver of claims. Division One ruled:
Shepler relies on Absher and Mike M. Johnson, Inc. v. Spokane County. This reliance is misplaced. Absher and Mike M. Johnson are distinguishable from the contract at issue here, because the contracts in those cases explicitly provided that failure to follow dispute resolution procedures constituted a waiver of those claims.
In addition, Division One held that waiver of the right to arbitrate does not mean the underlying claims are waived:
...Washington courts have long held that the contractual right to arbitration may be waived through a party's conduct if the right is not timely invoked. The right to arbitrate is waived by conduct inconsistent with any other intention but to forego a known right. Simply put, a party waives a right to arbitrate if it elects to litigate instead of arbitrate. The [Owners] filed their counterclaims in 2002. [The Contractor] did not assert arbitration as a defense or move to dismiss the [Owner’s] arbitrable claims on that basis until 2008. Both parties waived the dispute resolution clause by conduct.
Comment: This unpublished case provides guidance that the failure to comply with a contractual claim procedure may not give rise to forfeiture of the underlying claim if the contract clause at issue does not include language stating that the failure to comply will operate as a waiver of the claim. In addition, the decision reinforces that a mandatory contract provision can be waived by the party it benefits, which is another basis to defeat an argument that the failure to comply results in forfeiture.
[i] 150 Wn.2d 375, 78 P.3d 161 (2003).
[ii] Shepler Construction, Inc., v. Leonard, 68227-0-I (unpublished 2013).
[iii] 79 Wn. App. 841, 917 P.2d 1086 (1996).
Force Majeure - Allocating Risks For Unforeseen And Uncontrollable Events - Are Raccoons A Force Majeure Event?
Generally, construction contracts require the contractor to perform work until completion, or face damages and possible termination. In the wake of events such as Superstorm Sandy, Hurricane Katrina, and September 11th, however, contractors are becoming aware that events beyond their control can have serious implications on their ability to perform. Contractors are not clairvoyant and sometimes "stuff happens." Hurricanes, tornados, droughts, wildfires, and floods seem to be more common and more intense. These events may cause damage to the worksite and require demobilization, as well as affect the prices of materials and the time required to complete the project. This post explores the legal doctrine of force majeure, which is one of a handful of legal doctrines that deal with the effects of these unforeseeable and uncontrollable events on a contractor's ability to perform its contract.[i]
The French term "force majeure" means "greater force" and describes an event or condition that can be neither anticipated, nor controlled. Although the concept originates in Napoleonic law, it was quickly adopted by English, German, and American courts. Traditionally, when there was an "Act of God or the King's Enemies," performance could not be completed and the promisor was excused. The doctrine of force majeure shares historical ties with other legal concepts such as "physical impossibility" and "frustration of purpose," which excuse performance obligations (breach of contract) where external events cause the performance to be impossible or undermine the purpose of the agreement.
By far, the most common force majeure event is a natural disaster, including earthquakes, hurricanes, wildfire, tornados, floods, and droughts. But, force majeure events also include "man-made" events such as strikes, terrorism, scarcity, and government regulations. These types of events typically cannot be anticipated by the parties while drafting their contracts, but can have significant effects on the outcome of a construction project. A force majeure event may prevent performance, in whole or in part, for a short time or permanently. For example, a hurricane may require complete demobilization of the project, or a flood may only limit access to the site for a short term.
Not all unexpected events or conditions, however, are situations that will excuse performance of a contractual obligation. To obtain relief under the force majeure clause the contractor must generally clear three hurdles: First, something unexpected must occur. Second, the risk of the unexpected occurrence must not have been allocated to either party by the agreement. Finally, the unexpected occurrence must render performance commercially impracticable. If a contractor fails to protect itself from a foreseeable contingency, it has assumed that risk. Furthermore, a contractor is expected to take measures to prevent the harmful effects of uncontrollable events whenever reasonable - known as "mitigation." Reasonable weather protection measures should be employed even if the contractor has no notice of a "freak" storm brewing.
When there is no force majeure clause in the contract, the risk of loss for any unexpected or unforeseen event generally falls on the contractor. Since force majeure events are generally acts of nature (or God), it is said "because the same rain falls on the owner's head as on the contractor's" both parties share the risk; therefore, the contractor is entitled to a time extension, but not compensation. Therefore, if the event causes a delay in performance, a contractor could be allowed to raise the doctrine of force majeure to obtain an extension of time without penalty and as a defense against assessment of liquidated damages. Nevertheless, the contractor will not normally be permitted to recover losses or damages resulting from that delay. Moreover, contractors typically bear the costs to demobilize and remobilize, or repair work caused by an "Act of God" event.
It is not uncommon, therefore, for parties to include a force majeure clause in their contracts to limit the risk that a future event will prevent them from performing and subject them to liability. Force majeure provisions serve two purposes: allocating risk and providing notice to the parties of events that may suspend or excuse performance. If an event that triggers a force majeure clause occurs, theoretically, the burden will be borne by the party that assumed the risk.
Parties seeking to limit their exposure to a force majeure event should be careful, however, to use specific and detailed language in defining the scope and effect of a force majeure clause. The traditional boilerplate language contained in most force majeure clauses is too general and vague for modern circumstances because courts tend to narrowly interpret such language and limit its application to the events specifically listed. These provisions should address important questions, such as: What events or conditions are considered force majeure? Who is allowed to invoke the clause? What is the appropriate remedy where the clause is invoked? Which contractual obligations are covered by the clause? How should the parties determine whether the event creates an inability to perform? A strong force majeure clause will address these questions and more to protect the contractor from exposure to unexpected liability.
Comment: Where the contractor is able to show a force majeure event produced an excusable delay (one for which the contractor is entitled to a time extension), simply obtaining a contract extension of time is a hollow victory because acts of nature are generally deemed to be "non-compensable" by traditional allocation of contract risk doctrines. Thus, the contractor is entitled to an extension of time to complete the construction and protected from liquidated damages, but is not entitled to money damages for any of the additional costs attributable to the force majeure event. There are, however, a number of legal theories under which "Acts of God," such as adverse weather, may form a basis of a contractor's claim for compensable damages:
- Prior owner caused delays causes the contractor to encounter adverse weather: The Owner's change orders push the contractor into later performance when the force majeure event occurs, and but-for the owner's upfront delay, the contractor would not have encountered adverse weather.
- Excusable weather delays caused accelerated performance to stay on schedule: If the owner, after the force majeure event occurs, directs the contractor to maintain the original construction schedule, despite the contractor being entitled to an extension of time, the contractor may be entitled to compensation for the consequent acceleration.
- Acts of God/weather interacting with physical site conditions causing differing site conditions: This type of event turning weather related delays into compensable claims occurs quite frequently in the Pacific Northwest, which is known for its moisture sensitive soils. Soils that are acceptable backfill materials for utilities and embankment in good weather, when wet, turn into unusable materials requiring the import of pit run. Again, turning a weather event into a compensable event.
- Raccoons - a force majeure event: By far the most amusing example of a force majeure event came to my attention through Tom Cole, the lead estimator at Lydig Construction. Tom sent me an article about raccoons that were found atop a Ballard tower crane that was being used to build a 304 unit apartment complex. Apparently, the two raccoons climbed 150 feet up into the crane and made a home around the crane's cab. The contractor (Rafn & Company) had to call in animal control, who attempted to catch the critters employing humane traps.[ii] In this instance, the prime mover's, the tower crane, immobilization caused delay to the project. Unless the force majeure clause of the contract provided compensation to the contractor for force majeure events, the contractor's delay, caused by these two curious nocturnal bandits, entitled the contractor to a time extension, however, not to any compensation for the extended overhead, etc., caused by the delay.
- GC/CM Contracts: Alternative procurement contracts, such as the commonplace GC/CM (general contractor/construction manager) contracts in which the owner and contractor "partner" to build a project are commonplace in public and private construction. Contingencies are reduced or shared and markups are cut to the bone, and thus often include provisions in which the force majeure events are indeed compensable. The AIA contract A102 (the GMP Contract (2007)), without modification, places the cost risk of a force majeure event squarely on the contractor for costs that exceed the GMP. Thus, contractors performing GMP work should consider revisions to the force majeure clause, particularly when the fees are significantly cut because a force majeure event can have a drastic effect on a contractor's profitability if the contractor obtains no extended overhead compensation for the delay associated with the force majeure event.
[i] Source: Bruner & O'Connor Construction Law § 7:229 (2013).
[ii] Daily Journal of Commerce, February 8, 2013 “Raccoons Found Atop Ballard Crane.”