A unanimous New Jersey Supreme Court opinion has affirmed the rights of an aggrieved plaintiff to recover counsel fees incurred in prosecuting relief through a declaratory judgment; enforcing a duty to defend owed by a general liability carrier to a contractor defendant in a construction defect action.

In Occihifinto v. Olivo Constructionn, Inc., et als, the plaintiff hired a masonry contractor to perform work on an addition to plaintiff’s warehouse. Plaintiff sued the mason and the mason’s general liability carrier (Mercer) refused to defend or indemnify, instead filing a declaratory judgment action. Plaintiff aggressively prosecuted relief against the carrier in the declaratory judgment action, acting as a surrogate for the insured masonry contractor.

Although the trail court and Appellate Division ruled otherwise, the Supreme Court unanimously affirmed the aggrieved plaintiff’s entitlement to recover his counsel fees under R.4:42-9 (a) (6), which provides for an award of counsel fees in “an action upon a liability or indemnity policy of insurance in favor of a successful claimant.”

The Supreme Court determined the plaintiff was a successful claimant by vindicating his position in the declaratory judgment action; establishing the carrier’s duty to defend the mason. The award of counsel fees was allowed to stand, even though the plaintiff was unsuccessful in establishing liability in the underlying litigation.

This is not only the correct outcome, but should embolden and inspire aggrieved plaintiffs to take aggressive action in declaratory judgment actions spawned by underlying defect claim litigation. Insured defendant contractors are often disinclined to aggressively defend their position or lack the incentive and resolve of the underlying plaintiff; whose ability to recover is contingent upon gaining access to available insurance proceeds, often as the singular means to obtain relief.

This ruling is soundly based upon the express language of the rule, which provides for this remedy, consistent with the practical realities presented by these types of actions. Where the obligation to carry the burden of prosecuting what would otherwise be the insured’s rightful position to otherwise vindicate is foisted upon the underlying plaintiff, logic dictates that the court avail the plaintiff of the basic relief otherwise available to the insured.

This should give insurance carriers otherwise inclined to shirk their rightful responsibility to provide a defense or indemnity under a general liability policy in the construction defect context, to think twice before arbitrarily seeking to avoid responsibility. Given the additional consequence of exposure to counsel fees, one can only hope that insurance carriers will be more circumspect in determining when and whether to reserve their rights, or seek to deny coverage. At a minimum, this ruling should serve to level the playing field in this arena, balancing the scales decidedly in favor of an aggrieved plaintiff.

Purchasing a new construction home is an exciting endeavor. Once all the design options and custom changes are finalized, the wait begins. While all builders discourage purchasers from visiting the construction site, most builders will accommodate requests for walkthroughs. It is always a good idea, however, to try and include a provision in the sale contract or addendum providing you, the homeowner, the right to request and receive access to the site upon reasonable notice.

So, what should you do while on site? The most important thing you can do is take pictures (a lot of pictures). Specifically, you want to capture critical areas such as around windows and doors, at roof-to-wall intersections, and to the extent visible, any installed flashing such as building paper, drip caps, Tyvek, etc. Some more obvious things to look for are wall locations, number and placement of windows and doors, proper room layouts, etc. If you are so inclined, you may want to hire a professional engineer or architect to perform a cursory walkthrough with you and provide you with comments and concerns. Once the walls get covered up, it becomes much more difficult, if not impossible, to observe hidden construction elements and/or fix mistakes.

If you can, you should get to know the superintendent and ask a lot of questions. You should also request to see a copy of the plans and take pictures of the various details and specifications. Additionally, you may want to fill out an OPRA (Open Public Records Act) request form and submit it to the construction office. You are entitled to see any and all public records attendant to your build lot, which includes permit applications, issued permits, inspection reports, violation notices, filed plans and drawings, etc. This is a good way to gather information and stay informed about the construction process.

Finally, if you have the opportunity, you should visit your house during a heavy rain event and observe the conditions around windows and doors from the inside. This is the best time to identify any leaks around penetrations such as windows and doors. Once the drywall is installed, if there are leaks, you will not see any manifestations of water intrusion for many months, sometimes even years. By then, the Developer will likely no longer be responsive and the new homeowner warranty program will essentially be useless.

Buying a home is one of the most rewarding, yet potentially costly, life experiences. Construction takes months, sometimes years, and despite the existence of building codes and municipal oversight, mistakes happen. Due to the concealed nature of construction (e.g. important construction elements get closed up by siding, cladding, and drywall), mistakes are hidden and unidentified until the consequences of those mistakes begin to manifest. Water intrusion is the hallmark of construction defects and is almost always an indicator that construction deficiencies exist. Unfortunately, by the time the water manifests itself inside the house, the builder and/or seller are long gone, leaving the homeowner with the expense of performing investigations and subsequent repairs.

So what should a prospective homebuyer look for when evaluating homes to purchase? First, an understanding of basic home construction is necessary. The name of the game is simple: manage water. The intent behind every home design is water management and drainage. Thus, regardless of whether a house is clad with stucco, stone, brick, or vinyl siding, all those systems have to be installed in such a way as to protect the home from the elements and manage any water that gets behind the cladding system. While visual observations from the exterior will not reveal whether necessary drainage provisions exist behind the cladding (i.e. building paper, flashings, and moisture barriers); certain drainage provisions are nevertheless observable. For instance, once water gets behind the cladding it needs to be able to drain back out through small holes at the base of the cladding. Therefore, you should be able to observe spaces or holes around the areas where the cladding terminates at the base of the home.

Additionally, proper slope is extremely important for adequately managing water and preventing water intrusion. Balconies, decks, exterior window sills, decorative trim, and any other protruding surface that has the potential to hold water must be sloped away from the structure to direct water away from the house. Otherwise, water is directed towards the building and will find a way inside.

Any signs of cracking, buckling, bending, or sprawling of any piece of the exterior cladding should be investigated further. While home inspectors are licensed and trained, they are not professional engineers and do not always recognize the existence or potential for construction defects. If you are serious about purchasing a home, hire a professional engineer to perform a visual inspection and draft a report. It will be money well spent and may save you from buying a home that will require expensive repairs soon after you move in.

No matter whether you are a first time home buyer or veteran repeat purchaser chances are you have been mentally preparing for the deluge of paper that accompanies this major purchase. The sheer magnitude of documents is understandably overwhelming. Document after document is slid across the shiny, polished conference table in your attorney’s office. At a certain point you become automated; sign here, initial there—a few hours later and you may have just signed your first born child away. Yet, when purchasing a condominium or townhouse keep your wits about you and break out your reading glasses because there is one document you want to read—the Public Offering Statement.

A developer of a community development is required under New Jersey’s Planned Real Estate Development Full Disclosure Act to register the planned development with the Division of Housing and Development in the State Department of Community Affairs. In connection with its registration, the developer must also submit a proposed Public Offering Statement. Once approved, the Public Offering Statement must be freely available to all prospective purchasers prior to the closing of the unit.

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In a recent decision in Kane Builders, Inc. v. Continental Casualty Company, the United States District Court in New Jersey remanded back to state court the determination of whether Continental owed the builder defense and indemnity in connection with an underlying construction defect case which had been playing out in state court.

As is typical in these matters, the insurance carrier filed a declaratory judgment action in federal court notwithstanding the pendency of a then existing state court construction defect action instituted against Kane Builders, its insured. The underlying plaintiff asserted claims for damages for alleged defective building construction and other claims. The insured instituted claims in the state court action, also, putting in play whether Continental, its insurance carrier providing covered coverage under a general liability policy, was obligated to provide the builder with a defense and indemnity in the pending state court action.

The District Court ruled that logic dictated having the state court judge, who was overseeing the construction action, also address the coverage issues between the builder defendant and its carrier. Judicial economy was thus served by avoiding duplicative, piecemeal litigation. The District Court was unimpressed and held that the federal forum held “no special call,” under the circumstances.

We have seen it is typical in these circumstances for insurance carriers to want to litigate coverage issues in federal court, presumably because carriers see it as a more hospitable forum. As was the case here, logic dictates that coverage issues be adjudicated alongside construction defect and other underlying claims typically filed, as in this case, in the state court. This case demonstrates that federal judges are willing to remand matters back to state court under these circumstances.

It is not uncommon in construction defect “transition” litigation to have declaratory judgment actions filed by one or more defendants during the pendency of the litigation, as insurance coverage issues are of significance in these matters and carriers don’t always readily acknowledge their obligations to provide defense and indemnity, depending upon the language of the policy or policies at issue.

Defendants in these cases should not be bashful about putting coverage issues in play and we have seen that many courts are willing to also acknowledge the rights of the underlying plaintiff in these matters (often a Condominium Association) to advance coverage claims when, for example, the insured defendant builder or subcontractor is either no longer in business or lacking sufficient motivation to pursue its own carrier more aggressively.

We have argued successfully that while a judgment against a carrier during the pendency of an underlying construction defect claim can be premature, a determination as to whether coverage is afforded can and sometimes should be made while the underlying case is ongoing, assuming sufficient facts are available, or the court is in a position to make a coverage determination. The rules do not prevent this, procedurally, although insurance carriers often oppose claims by the underlying plaintiff directly against the carrier based upon case law which we have seen is sometimes not directly supportive of the positions advanced. This is an interesting issue, which tends to rear its head reasonably often in these cases.

It is no secret that insurance policies are famous for containing convoluted language. The average insured likely has no clue what is and is not covered. Little solace can be found in referring to the conspicuous “Definitions” section; ultimately no more than a trap to trick unsuspecting policyholders into believing that any ambiguities that arise will be easily rectified. Insurance is big business and carriers don’t want to have to pay claims. At the end of the day, coverage is all about semantics and carriers use the complicated wording of their policies to create plausible ways to deny claims otherwise assumed to be covered. Carriers bank on the fact that many insureds either don’t know the law (and will simply accept the carrier’s interpretations) or can’t afford to fight the carrier in court. Carriers save significant dollars each year because some insureds don’t pursue questionable coverage denials. Radical change is not likely on the horizon. Some good news, however, is that there is a body of policyholder-friendly case laws in New Jersey on the issue of ambiguity.

A recent unpublished decision out of the U.S. District Court for the District of New Jersey reaffirmed the long-standing principal that ambiguities in insurance policies must be construed in favor of the insured. In Gregory Packaging, Inc., v. Travelers Prop. Cas. Co. of Am., the Court found that a shutdown of the insured’s factory caused by the discharge of an unsafe amount of ammonia constituted a “direct physical loss or damage” to the property; a condition precedent to coverage. The carrier argued that a physical change of, or alteration to, the property, is necessary to trigger coverage. The Court disagreed and found that an accident that renders a building unfit for occupancy, and in need of remediation, amounts to a direct physical loss. Here, the release of ammonia physically transformed the air, rendering the facility dangerous. Accordingly, the Court determined that coverage cannot be denied on the basis that there was not a “direct physical loss.”

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Unitowners in condominium associations and homeowners in homeowner associations are often confused about the legal responsibilities of design professionals, general contractors, subcontractors and municipal building officials and building inspectors regarding construction of their homes. This blog is intended to briefly clarify and explain the relationship among these various people and entities.

Architects are licensed professionals who design buildings to meet the needs of the owner. They are required to adhere to all applicable building codes and standards in the industry. To that end the architect creates construction drawings, details, and specifications to direct the subcontractors as to the materials or systems they are to use and how those materials and systems are to be integrated into the overall construction in such a manner as to satisfy the design intent of the architect. Architects have to have an overall understanding of the systems and materials being designed into a building and the requirements of the applicable building codes governing construction. The scope of work of the architect varies from job to job and is typically defined by the contract signed by the architect. For example, the scope of work could be as narrow as being hired by builders to simply produce a set of construction drawings that can be used by the builder to obtain a building permit. After that, the architect has no further involvement. At the other end of the spectrum, the architect is involved in reviewing and approving submittals of materials the builder or subcontractors want to use on the project, reviewing contractor applications for payment of invoices, and even reviewing work done by the general contractor/subcontractors in the field for compliance with the plans, manufacturer’s installation specifications, and details.

The Building Department of the municipality is responsible for protecting life and safety. They review the architectural and other construction drawings for compliance with building codes prior to issuing a building permit. They review things like the height of the building, square footage, intended occupancy, fire ratings, seismic requirements, and other considerations with an eye towards keeping the public safe. Once construction is under way, the building inspectors visit the site to check to see if the building is being built per the codes and approved plans. When construction defects are discovered and damage is found, many homeowners and condominium unit owners want to know why the building inspector and township are not responsible. While they may have some moral responsibility, the law of New Jersey gives them a qualified immunity from liability for negligence in doing building inspections. In the absence of fraud (ie, taking bribes), the building inspectors and the municipalities are immune from civil liability. This immunity was presumably granted by the legislature to prevent every municipality in New Jersey from being bankrupted by construction defect cases.

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On January 7, 2015, the Judicial Panel on Multidistrict Litigation (JPML) ordered that six putative class-action lawsuits stemming from Colorado, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, North Carolina and Ohio will be venued and centralized in the U.S. District Court for the District of New Jersey. New Jersey was selected to handle this MDL litigation matter because the primary defendant/manufacturer of the outdoor decking material at issue, GAF Materials Corp., is headquartered in Wayne, NJ. The cases are consolidated before U.S. District Court Judge Jose Linares in Newark. The number of nationwide suits subject to the consolidation order is expected to at least double.

The claims at issue involve an outdoor decking product manufactured by GAF. One of the class representatives, Thomas McGovern, installed the subject decking at his vacation house in Mackinac Island, Michigan in 2009. The decking almost immediately began to warp and stain when exposed to the elements. The condition of the material was so bad that it had to be completely replaced two years later. The claims involve violations of applicable consumer protection laws, breach of warranty and unjust enrichment, and relate primarily to the defective product itself rather than improper installation.

GAF is represented by Quinn Emanuel in New York. Insofar as GAF has not filed a motion to dismiss any of the actions, it looks like these MDL cases are headed into full-blown litigation.

A New Jersey appellate court recently issued a reported opinion in Hill International v. Atlantic City Board of Education, addressing whether an affidavit of merit issued by an engineer, addressing the conduct of a defendant, architect, was sufficient in order to satisfy the requirements of the affidavit of merit statute.

At issue was whether the conduct of a licensed New Jersey architect, and his licensed architectural firm, was deficient in terms of his failure to properly perform contract administration and design services, provided in connection with construction of a school. The affidavit of merit was issued by a licensed engineer, who was not a licensed architect, although the two professions do have some overlap. The court addressed whether the affidavit of merit statute, which requires an affidavit from an “appropriate licensed person” should allow this type of deviation or be construed to require a supporting affidavit of merit from a “like-licensed” professional in all malpractice or negligence cases falling within the purview of the statute.

The court held that, to support a claim of malpractice or professional negligence, the affidavit must be issued by an affiant who is licensed within the same profession as the defendant. The court did however carve out exceptions where an affidavit from such a like-licensed expert was not required – in circumstances where the plaintiff’s claims do not involve the exercise of functions within the scope of the licensed professional’s role, or where the claims are confined to theories of vicarious liability or agency that do not assert or implicate deviations from the defendant’s professional standards of care.

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In a decision that has renewed the faith of condominium law practitioners in our state’s judicial system, the New Jersey Appellate Division recently issued a strongly worded opinion in Port Liberte II Condo. Ass’n v. New Liberty Residential Urban Renewal Co. et. al., 2014 N.J. Super. LEXIS 19 (App. Div. Jan. 21, 2014) (approved for publication on January 31, 2014), that has prevented a grave injustice and allowed unit owners to control their own fates by having the power to validate unauthorized decisions of the board.

In what has been exclaimed as a “big win” for condominium associations and unit owners, the Appellate Division has determined that a condominium board’s decision to file suit without taking a pre-litigation vote, required by the association’s bylaws, can be affirmed at a later time by the membership and cannot be challenged by the defendants. Designed to protect the financial interests of the unit owners, the bylaws cannot be used by defendant developers and contractors to suppress those very same interests. Non-homeowners, therefore, do not have standing to challenge unauthorized or procedurally defective decisions of the board to start suit.

Faced with widespread construction defects in the common elements of its 225-unit community with a price tag in excess of thirty million dollars for repairs, the Port Liberte II Condominium Association filed suit in 2008 against those responsible, the Developer and the contractors that built the development. Several years into the law suit, the defendants sought dismissal of the entire action because the Association had not obtained a community vote to approve the filing of the suit, as required by a provision of the bylaws drafted by the Developer. To rectify that oversight, the Association held two separate votes to ratify the original filing of the suit, the first in October of 2009, which was approved by the community 72 votes to 3, and a second in October of 2011, which was approved by a vote of 65 to 1. Armed with these two examples of overwhelming support in the community for the lawsuit, the Association opposed the defendants’ motions to dismiss the case arguing that the defendants, as outsiders who owned no units in the community, had no standing to enforce the bylaws, and, even if they had such standing, the original filing of the suit was overwhelmingly ratified by the unit owners.

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