Monday, May 25, 2009

Hidden Land Mines: Identifying (and Managing) Risk in LEED/Green Building Projects

Anyone in the construction industry, particularly those involved in LEED/green building projects, has probably realized that it not a matter of "if" green building litigation will come, but "when" and "how." To date, green building litigation has been pretty infrequent, but anticipating where litigation will come from will be an important step in avoiding it.

One widespread school of thought has been that green building litigation will arise from projects that simply do not obtain the LEED requirements that are contracted for. Green or LEED-oriented buildings are much more costly to build than conventional buildings, and owners and developers pay a premium for this LEED branding. So they are clearly not going to be happy if a project does not obtain the certification that was expected. As with many construction defect or design defect cases, litigation may arise for breaches of contract or breaches of warranty.

However, this may not be the only theory of liability in the green building arena. A recent case out of Maryland, Shaw Development v. Southern Builders, suggests that the scope of potential liability may be broader.

The Shaw case arose in connection with a condo project in Maryland that included a number of green design features that were intended to support a LEED Silver application. The owner sued the general contractor seeking, among other things, over $600,000 in lost tax credits under a state green building program.

Maryland had provisions that provided tax credits to owners for building eco-friendly buildings. The procedure to receive this credit was to initially apply for a sort of preliminary certification of the project. The project would be built and then, when completed, it would be evaluated for final approval. The preliminary certification, however, contained an expiration date, and the condo project at issue in Shaw was not completed before that project’s preliminary certification expired.

The lawsuit in Shaw did not specify exactly how the general contractor was to be liable, and the case settled prior to trial so there is no precedential value either. However, it is quite possible that the design actually was adequate–the project was just not delivered in time to qualify for the tax credits.

So what is the lesson to be learned from Shaw? Actually, the key in all green building contracts, particularly ones that contemplate LEED certifications and/or green-based tax credits (or even service provider discounts, such as electricity) is to define and clarify risk and set out which party will be liable for certain failures. That means being sure your contract actually fits the project and isn’t just a blanket form (Note: the contract at issue in Shaw was an AIA form but clearly did not address these issues).

Assuming the Shaw facts–that a project failed to receive significant tax credits because it was completed late–who would be liable for those lost tax credits? Would it be the general contractor? The owner? The architect or engineer? What if the project was delayed because of unforeseeably bad weather? What if it was a subcontractor’s mistakes? Or the engineer’s delay in approving modifications to project specs? An electrician who installed bad wiring had no idea his work could result in the loss of a large tax credit–is it fair to hold him responsible?

The shifting of liability should be expressly laid out in the contract documents, including who is liable if a project fails to obtain certain certifications. By clearly defining these items, parties may be able to avoid the litigation that comes with uncertainty in contract provisions. At a minimum, however, parties will put themselves in a better position if litigation does in fact arise.

Monday, May 11, 2009

Chinese Drywall and Statutory Indemnity: The Intersection of Construction Law and Products Liability

Anyone who has paid attention to construction news in the last 6 months knows that one of the hot topics has been Chinese drywall. According to the reports, tainted drywall manufactured in China emits potentially toxic chemicals including carbon disulfide, carbonyl sulfide, and hydrogen sulfide. In larger amounts, these emissions may create a health risk and the defective drywall emits a sulfur-like odor. These toxic materials also may corrode metals within a building, damaging wires, pipes, air conditioners, electronic equipment, etc.

As a result of these defects, Chinese drywall problems have led to a flurry of litigation. If the drywall is in fact defective, the manufacturers may be faced with liability. However, when litigation arises, you can rest assured that the manufacturer will not be the only named defendant. At a minimum, the builder would likely be named as a co-defendant in the lawsuit. Suppliers would probably be included as defendants as well. In fact, more than likely, every party from the painters up the chain to the manufacturers would be named in a lawsuit.

What if your company had no idea it was dealing with defective drywall but still finds itself stuck in the middle of litigation? What if your company didn’t know it was supplying a bad product. What if you just installed the materials your long-time supplier provided? Is there any protection for you in this situation, or does your company simply have to live with a big target on its back?

While there has certainly been an increase in tainted Chinese drywall litigation, the good news for builders and those in the construction industry is that there may be statutory indemnity available to pass along the costs of litigation to the manufacturers. In Texas, builders have Chapter 82 of the Texas Civil Practice & Remedies Code to lean on. In short, Chapter 82 (more specifically Section 82.002) requires a manufacturer to indemnify and hold harmless a seller against a loss arising out of a "products liability action," except for any loss caused by the seller’s own negligence, intentional misconduct, or negligently modifying or altering the product.

For purposes of this provision, a "seller" is a person who is engaged in the business of distributing or otherwise placing into the stream of commerce a product or any component part. The term "seller" is not limited to the traditional role of wholesale distributor or retailer that you would typically associate with the term. A "products liability action" is any action against a manufacturer or seller for recovery of damages arising out of personal injury, death, or property damage allegedly caused by a defective product.

The statutory indemnity required by Chapter 82 of the Texas Civil Practice & Remedies Code applies regardless of the way in which the action is concluded and is in addition to any other duties to indemnity (such as a contractual duty). This indemnity also includes attorney’s fees and court costs.

"Indemnity is great, but I still don’t want a judgment against my company," you say. You may still be in luck. Generally speaking, a seller that did not manufacture a product is not liable for damages related to that product unless the claimant proves:

1) that the seller participated in the design of the product;

2) that the seller altered or modified the product and the claimant’s harm resulted from that alteration or modification;

3) that the seller installed the product, or had the product installed, on another product and the claimant’s harm resulted from the product’s installation onto the assembled product;

4) that:
a) the seller actually knew of a defect to the product at the time the seller supplied the product; and
b) the claimant’s harm resulted from the defect;


5) that the manufacturer of the product is:
a) insolvent; or
b) not subject to the jurisdiction of the court

So how do these statutory provisions actually translate into indemnity or liability avoidance for tainted Chinese drywall claims?

If you’re the builder and you’ve been sued because tainted drywall caused damage to a structure (or its components) or personal injury, you can probably seek indemnity from the drywall manufacturer (assuming the builder was not involved in the design or warnings on the product). Similarly, if you’re a painter or sheetrocker who simply installed the materials without any material alteration, then you too would probably be able to seek indemnity from the manufacturer. In either situation, there's a decent chance your company would probably not be liable if it did not know about the allegedly defective product (indemnity notwithstanding).

Product liability law takes into consideration the innocent seller and carves out protections for them so they are not liable for defective products they had no real hand in creating or warning about. But this indemnity is not automatic–it should be formally requested of the manufacturer within a reasonable time after the claim. Even then, the would-be indemnitor can deny the request, forcing the innocent seller to seek enforcement through litigation. The good news, however, is that attorneys’ fees are typically recoverable when enforcing an indemnity request (if successful).

Even though products liability and construction law aren’t typically thought of together, the current Chinese drywall situation shows that there can be an overlap of these two areas of law. It is important to know your rights and obligations so you are not left liable for someone else’s mistake.