Principal Architects on Residential Projects Liable for Construction Defects Outside Their Control; Developers and Owners May Pay the Price

Beacon Residential Community Assoc. v. Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, LLP (Cal. Supreme Court., 07/03/2014, S208173)

On July 3, 2014, the California Supreme Court decided the much watched case Beacon Residential Community Assoc. v. Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, LLP.  The court held that the “principal architect” “owes a duty of care to future homeowners in the design of a residential building . . . even when they do not actually build the project or exercise control over construction.”  (Emph. added.)

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New California Statutes Potentially Increase Contractors’ and Subcontractors’ Liability Exposure Under the Prevailing Wage Law

California has enacted several statues, effective January 1, 2014, which will likely increase contractors’ and subcontractors’ exposure to claims for prevailing wage violations on public works projects.  Under the Prevailing Wage Law, Cal. Labor Code § 1720 et seq., contractors and subcontractors working on public works are required to pay the wages prevailing in the locality, and to comply with several record-keeping and employee work schedule requirements.  Violations of the law subject a contractor or subcontractor to claims for unpaid prevailing wages, and a variety of assessments and penalties.  The recently-enacted California statutory provisions increase the time period in which the claims for violations of the Prevailing Wage Law may be brought, increase the scope of remedies available to private entities seeking to enforce the Prevailing Wage Law, establish deadlines for the Director of the Department of Industrial Relations to issue coverage determinations as to whether a project qualifies as a public work under the Law, and generally increase the risk of liability under the Law.

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A Construction Defect Insurance Carrier Need Only Demonstrate That Another Insurance Carrier’s Policy May Potentially Cover The Claim In Order To Recover Equitable Contribution To A Settlement

A California Appellate Court recently clarified the burden of proof for an insurance company seeking contribution from another insurance company in settlement of a construction defect action. When a company involved in construction is sued for allegedly causing property damage to the building or structure it built (i.e. a construction defect), the company typically turns to its commercial general liability insurance policy. Depending on the nature of the defect claim the construction company may have more than one policy that could potentially provide coverage. Different insurance carriers may respond to their insured’s tender in different ways. When one carrier agrees to defend and indemnify its insured from a claim potentially covered by another carrier, but the second carrier refuses to cover, the first might settle the claim and then seek a court ruling that the second provide “equitable contribution” to the settlement amount paid. In that situation, what does the settling carrier have to show? That the claim was absolutely and certainly with in the coverage of the second insurance policy?

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New Court Decision Clarifies Mechanic’s Lien Valuation Statute

The amount of a mechanic’s lien in California is generally the lesser of: 1) the reasonable value of the work; or 2) the price agreed upon in the lien claimant’s contract. But does the same measure apply if a lien defendant was not a party to the contract? In Appel v. Superior Court of Los Angeles County, 214 Cal. App. 4th 329 (2013), the appellate court clarified that the same measure does apply.

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Knowingly Underbidding For Government Contract May Lead to False Claims Liability

Contractors usually assume that the statutory prohibition on submitting “false claims” refers to inflated invoices, phony change order costs, and the like. However the courts are giving the relevant statutes a broader meaning which public works contractors should take into account. For example, the United States Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals recently ruled that a bidder for a government contract that is found to have knowingly underbid the contract may have liability under the federal False Claims Act (“FCA”). In Hooper v. Lockheed Martin Corporation, 688 F.3d 1037 (9th Cir. 2012), Lockheed was the successful bidder for a contract with the Air Force to automate and modernize software and hardware used to support U.S. space launch operations. The contract was structured as a reimbursable cost plus “award fee” contract, where the contractor would be paid its costs of performing the work, plus “award fees” given at periodic intervals based on overall performance, including factors such as “spending less money than estimated.” Id. at 1041. Because the extent of the work required was uncertain, bidders were to submit their estimated costs of performing the work. Lockheed initially submitted a bid of $439.2 million, and later submitted a “Best and Final Offer” of $432.7 million. Id. at 1042. After the award, the government paid Lockheed more than $900 million for its work.

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Developers May Require That Construction Defect Disputes Be Resolved Through Arbitration

The California Supreme Court recently ruled that developers – by including an arbitration provision under the Federal Arbitration Act (FAA) in Homeowners’ Association Covenants, Conditions and Restrictions (“CC&R’s”) – may require that construction defect actions be resolved through arbitration rather than by jury trial. In Pinnacle Museum Tower Assn. v. Pinnacle Market Development (US), LLC, 55 Cal. 4th 223 (2012), California’s high court ruled that such provisions are consistent with the Davis-Stirling Act and that the homeowners’ associations can be bound by the arbitration provision in the recorded CC&R’s.

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Charter Cities Are Not Required to Pay Prevailing Wages on Local Public Works Projects

Labor unions have long been at odds with California charter cities over whether such cities must pay prevailing wages on public works projects. While many charter cities have either not exempted themselves from state prevailing wage laws, or have passed their own prevailing wage laws, other charter cities have no prevailing wage laws for public works projects whatsoever. The building trades have challenged those charter cities which have no such laws. However, the California Supreme Court recently sided with the charter cities on this issue. In State Building and Construction Trades Council of California AFL-CIO v. City of Vista (July 2, 2012, S173586) ___ Cal.4th ___. Relying on 80 years of precedent, the Court held that contract worker wages of locally funded public works are municipal affairs, not of statewide concern, and are exempt from state prevailing wage laws (see City of Pasadena v. Charleville (1932) 215 Cal. 384, 389).

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Special Advisory: New Mechanics Lien Act in California

In 2010, the California Legislature enacted Senate Bill (“SB”) 189 to reorganize and simplify the laws governing works of improvement. The bill completely re-writes the statutes which provide for mechanics liens, stop notices and certain construction bonds. These revisions took effect on July 1, 2012. In addition to this reorganization, some substantive changes to the laws governing mechanics’ liens, construction bonds, and stop notices were made. As a result, all of the forms commonly used in the industry, such as the 20-Day Preliminary Notice, Notice of Completion, and Progress/Retention Payment Releases must be changed.

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Court Broadly Defines Subcontractors Who Qualify For Payment Bond Claims

Can a supplier of construction materials be considered a “subcontractor” for purposes of enforcing its claim on a public works payment bond? The answer is “yes” according to a recent decision of the California Court of Appeal. In Eggers Industries v. Flintco, Inc., et al., 201 Cal. App. 4th 536 (3d Dist. 2011), rev. denied (Feb. 15, 2012). The Court affirmed the rule that a “subcontractor’s status as a subcontractor must be determined based on what the subcontractor agrees to do, not what it actually ends up doing,” citing a fifty year-old California Supreme Court decision. In so holding, Eggers provides important guidance regarding the scope of recovery against a public works payment bond permitted by Civil Code sec. 3248 and its replacement, the newly chaptered Civil Code sec. 9554, which takes effect in July 2012.

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Federal Courts Overrule GAO and Require Reinstatement of Low Bidder

Contractors who file a bid protest challenging a federal contract award can do so in one of three forums: (1) the agency whose procurement decision is being challenged; (2) the Government Accountability Office (“GAO”); or (3) the Court of Federal Claims (“COFC”). Many federal contractors choose to file protests with the GAO because the GAO represents the middle ground between an agency-level protest and a COFC protest. Typically, a protestor wants to avoid filing a protest in the very agency whose conduct is being protested and wants to avoid the time an expense of filing a protest with the COFC. Additionally, although GAO decisions are non-binding, they have almost always been fully implemented by the Contracting Officer (“CO”) of the applicable agency and have traditionally been given a high level of deference by the COFC. However, a case decided by the COFC this past year may signal the deterioration of high deference afforded to GAO decisions.

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