The November 16, 2016 issue of the Wall Street Journal ran an article about Celebration, Florida, which is the master-planned community built by The Walt Disney Company in 1996. The title of the article summarized the state of affairs in Celebration as follows: “There Is Little Celebration in the Town Disney Built: Mold, leaks, rot are hurting the 1990s utopia; ‘they’re harassing my team.’” My initial thought was that if this can happen to a community built by the world’s most famous mouse, it is little wonder that a large portion of my practice involves representing community associations in lawsuits against developers and architects for construction and design deficiencies.
Stark & Stark Shareholders Randy Sawyer and Andrew Podolski have successfully settled the Lakeside at North Haledon Condominium construction defect case for $7.4 Million.
The case involved serious design and construction defect claims which caused damage to common elements from water infiltration through and around stucco, manufactured stone veneer (MSV) and other exterior cladding systems, plus roofs, windows and balconies. This is an impressive result because the case involved challenging insurance coverage issues related to policy exclusions for synthetic stucco trim and the lack of proof of consequential damage to sheathing and framing.
Stark & Stark Shareholders Thomas J. Pryor and Donald B. Brenner have successfully settled the Bay View Condominium construction defect case for $3.1M. Shareholder Randy Sawyer, along with Associates Gene Markin, John Prisco, and Tara Speer were all part of the team effort that achieved this settlement.
The case involved design and construction defect claims which caused damage to common elements from water infiltration through and around brick and other exterior cladding systems, plus roofs, windows and a plaza over a parking garage. Stark & Stark is particularly proud of this result because the case involved challenging insurance coverage issues related to the lack of proof of consequential damage to sheathing and framing.
For a newer community association board that has recently undergone transition from developer to unit owner control, there is significant temptation to accept a quick, lump sum settlement from the developer to “settle” any remaining punch list items. New board members are often in active and frequent communication with the developer, including any developer-appointed (non-unit owner) representatives who are still sitting on the board. In addition, developers are often willing to work with associations up to and during transition to resolve any outstanding construction issues. With a seemingly cooperative developer on the one hand, and the immense costs posed by litigation on the other, boards frequently adopt a “take what we can get” approach to resolving outstanding issues with a developer rather than digging in and using the threat of litigation to leverage a better settlement. At best, this approach will most likely result in the association leaving money on the table; at worst, it will cost unit owners tens of thousands in future special assessments.
When a developer sells 75% of the units in a condominium or home owner association development, majority control of the association board is turned over to unit owners from the developer (who, up until this point, had its own representatives controlling the board). During this process, known as Transition, a developer’s primary concern is to pave the way to selling off the remaining units, obtain releases of its performance bonds and, most importantly, get the association to sign a litigation release that will prevent the association from ever suing the developer in the future. In order to get a litigation release, the developer will often offer a seemingly large sum of money. Often, the amount the developer offers actually exceeds the cost to fix any open punch list items that have yet to be completed. This seemingly generous offer by the developer is designed to tempt the board into quickly releasing the developer from any future claims.
Stark & Stark’s nationally recognized Construction Litigation group has scored some recent victories, advocating for community association and condo community clients while negotiating two major settlements in complex construction defect litigation claims for nearly $10 Million.
Most recently, the group skillfully negotiated a settlement on behalf of a Condominium Association in excess of $5.75 Million for a complex construction defect case against more than 45 defendants involving damages from water infiltration to 188 condominium units spread over 26 buildings. Stark & Stark Shareholder Andrew Podolski took the case from inception, developed and implemented the strategy, and otherwise put the case together for a jury trial. Trial was scheduled to begin on May 23, and was expected to run more than 2 months. The ramp up of trial prep activity and the looming trial date ultimately brought the defendants to the table for rigorous settlement negotiations. Drew was ably assisted in the litigation of the case by Associate John Prisco, who took some of the depositions, helped plow through a mountain of discovery materials, and did outstanding work on numerous motions and assisted with trial preparation.
Community associations are often given common elements in transition that incur damage from design and/or construction deficiencies. Associations typically have limited funds. Even those with ample financial resources are usually governed by Boards whose members are keenly aware of the fact that the Association’s funds are trust monies that need to be carefully managed and wisely expended.
Most board members do not have construction experience and are not lawyers or design professionals. They often do not know what to think when advised by counsel and engineering professionals that invasive testing is needed to permit investigation and documentation of the Association’s claims. Even when confronted with evidence of water infiltration, which they suspect or know may be causing damage, many association have an initial inclination not to want to spend a lot of money on engineering and forensic investigations. Once limited, preliminary testing shows a problem exists, and litigation becomes necessary, the question becomes, “How much testing is needed to support the association’s claims?” This blog is intended to help give some perspective to boards facing such a decision.
In Federal and most State courts, admissibility of scientific expert witness testimony is governed by the “Daubert” standard articulated in Daubert v. Merrell Dow Pharmaceuticals, 509 U.S. 579 (1993). The key purpose of the Daubert standard is to ensure that the proposed expert testimony is both relevant to the issues in dispute and the evidence in support thereof is reliable.
Under Daubert, “the test of admissibility is not whether a particular scientific opinion has the best foundation, or even whether the opinion is supported by the best methodology or unassailable research. Rather, the test is whether the ‘particular opinion is based on valid and reliable methodology. The admissibility inquiry thus focuses on principles and methodology, not on conclusions generated by the principles and methodology. Once admissibility has been determined, then it is for the trier of fact to determine the credibility of the expert witness.” In re TMI Litig., 193 F.3d 613, 665 (3rd. Cir. 1999).
Generally, expert testimony is permitted when:
- The expert’s scientific, technical, or other specialized knowledge will help the trier of fact to understand the evidence or to determine a fact in issue
- The testimony is based on sufficient facts or data
- The testimony is the product of reliable principles and methods
- The expert has reliably applied the principles and methods to the facts of the case
Many state courts have adopted nearly verbatim Federal Rule of Evidence 702. For example, the New Jersey Rules of Evidence state:
“If scientific, technical, or other specialized knowledge will assist the trier of fact to understand the evidence or to determine a fact in issue, a witness qualified as an expert by knowledge, skill, experience, training, or education may testify thereto in the form of an opinion or otherwise.”
It is impossible for any association to afford to pay for its experts to invasively test every inch of a building. That is why courts allow parties to use limited invasive testing done by experts to support an opinion that the same conditions found in the limited testing exist everywhere on the buildings. This process is known as “extrapolation.”
The trial Judge is the gatekeeper of the evidence the jury gets to hear at trial. As a general matter, the use and admissibility of expert testimony based on extrapolation supporting claims of damages caused by design and construction deficiencies is based on an evaluation by the Judge of:
- The randomness of the sample
- The size of the sample
A detailed discussion of these concepts is beyond the scope of this blog. Generally, a sample must be randomly selected for its results to be fairly extrapolated. It has been said that a random sample is one in which each member of the population has an equal probability of being selected for inclusion in the sample. Absent random selection of samples, courts fear the occurrence of “selection bias.” This can be countered by proper planning. For example, if you have a case where there is suspected damage from water infiltration through exterior walls, your expert could do a reasonable number of moisture probes of each side of each building, augmented by invasive test cuts in selected locations.
The case law on allowing experts to extrapolate from their findings is extremely fact sensitive and voluminous. It is imperative that your attorney be familiar with it in order to plan the investigation with your expert. In some cases, you may even need the services of a statistical expert. What is clear is that the Association needs to have counsel and its experts devise a plan for how to provide sufficient testing to satisfy the Daubertrequirements for admissibility. That process will then allow the Association to understand how much money it needs to spend in order to prove its case and collect damages through mediation or trial.
You hire an architect to prepare plans for the construction of a new home and a developer to execute those plans and physically construct the home. The plans require the testing of the underlying soil to confirm that the bearing capacity of the soil is adequate to support the weight of the structure. The builder, despite being contractually obligated to build the home in accordance with the plans and specifications, does not test the soil.
As a result, after the structure is erected, you notice substantial cracking and differential settlement throughout the house. The builder assures you this is just “a normal part of the settling process.” You later find out that a substantial portion of the house was constructed on soil with a bearing capacity that is considerably less than what is required, and the house is slowly sliding down a hill and uninhabitable. You bring suit against the developer for breach of contract. Can you also claim a violation of the Consumer Fraud Act and seek triple damages and attorneys’ fees?
Generally speaking, a contractor’s commercial general liability (“CGL”) policy is designed to cover personal injury or property damage caused by an accident resulting from the contractor’s work. The policy is not meant to be a guarantee of the contractor’s work and therefore does not cover damages to the work itself – instead, these are known as “business risk” damages. The concept that is inherent in every agreement for the performance of construction work is the risk that the work will be done improperly.
By selecting a particular contractor, the owner has to make a business judgment as to the qualifications and reliability of the selected contractor, and therefore assumes the risk that the work will be done incorrectly. If the work is done improperly and needs to be corrected, the contractor, and ultimately the owner, bears the burden of repairing or fixing that faulty work. The contractor’s insurance is not a performance bond guaranteeing the work; instead, the commercial general liability insurance is designed to cover any unexpected damages that arise from the contractor’s work, such as damage to other property caused by the faulty work.
Consider a roofer hired to install a new roof on a building. Once completed, the roof is the roofing contractor’s “work.” If the roofer installs the wrong type of shingles, but does everything else correctly, the only “damage” to speak of would be to the roof shingles themselves, i.e. the roofer’s work. The cost of replacing the shingles is therefore that “business risk” not covered by insurance.
A New Jersey trial court granted summary judgment in favor of Selective Insurance Company holding that the “continuous trigger” theory does not provide insurance coverage subsequent to the manifestation of damages that arose from a subcontractor’s negligence in the construction of a condominium development. The issue arose in the matter of Cypress Point Condominium Association v. Selective Way Insurance Company, et al., Docket No. HUD-L-936-14, 2015 N.J. Super. Unpub. LEXIS 721 (N.J. Super., Hudson Cnty. Mar. 30, 2015) (“Cypress Point”).
“The ‘continuous trigger’ theory holds that an occurrence occurs under an insurance policy each time damage accrues over a continuous period of time, from ‘exposure to manifestation’.” Cypress Point, at *12. Courts developed the “continuous trigger” theory to counter scientific uncertainties surrounding initial manifestations of damages typically at issue in environmental, toxic tort, and delay manifestation property damage claims. Id.
In Cypress Point, the Cypress Point Condominium Association (the “Association”) filed a Declaratory Judgment Action against Selective Way Insurance Company (“Selective”) seeking a declaratory judgment that Selective owed a duty to indemnify its insured, MDNA Framing, in connection with an underlying construction defect action filed by the Association. The Association filed an amended complaint in the underlying action on June 12, 2012, bringing claims against MDNA Framing, which was contracted to perform framing and window installation work in connection with the construction of the Cypress Point condominium development. Construction of the development commenced in 2002 and was substantially completed in 2004. Subsequent to the completion of construction, unit owners began to experience water infiltration around the interior windows. The Association’s liability expert found numerous defects related to MDNA Framing’s work, including missing flashings, a lack of a continuous water management system, and improper sealant application around the windows. The Association’s liability expert issued his initial report opining on these deficiencies on June 30, 2012.
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.