Author: Mary Anne Wolf

Construction Law: The Limits of Anti-Indemnity in Louisiana

Louisiana’s anti-indemnity statute applicable to construction contracts, R.S. 9:2780.1, became law in 2011. The statute renders unenforceable any provision in, or collateral to, a construction contract that purports to indemnify or hold harmless a person from liability for its own negligence, or has the effect of doing so. Since the law’s passage, few court decisions have interpreted its seemingly broad language and many questions remain as to the law’s full impact.

The obvious intent of the anti-indemnity law is to avoid shifting liability away from a party at fault to another person. To this end, the language in the statute nullifies any agreement that has “the effect of holding the person at fault harmless.” But what about “limit of liability” provisions? Arguably, such provisions have the effect of holding harmless the party at fault. Does a limit of liability provision, otherwise valid and enforceable under Louisiana law, run afoul of the anti-indemnity statute? After all, those parties with superior bargaining power in construction contracts will seek to insulate themselves from liability to the fullest extent allowed by law, and will look for alternatives to the indemnity provisions that now expressly violate public policy.

One court recently held that R.S. 9:2780.1 does not prohibit a limit of liability provision in a construction contract. In Patriot Contracting, LLC v. Star Insurance Company, (E.D. La. 3/01/2018), the construction contract contained a provision that excluded liability of the architect for good faith decisions made during contract administration. The plaintiff/contractor alleged that the architect was negligent in its contract administration duties and caused it to suffer economic loss. The court dismissed the claim, rejecting the contractor’s argument that the provision violated the anti-indemnity law.

The Patriot court explained that the statute prohibits an indemnity agreement, i.e., where one party agrees to reimburse a second party for damages for which the second party becomes liable to a third party. However, the anti-indemnity law did not impact the provision that excluded the contractor’s right to recover from the architect. Thus, at at least according to one court, parties in construction contracts are still free to include limit of liability provisions.

 

Mary Anne Wolf is an engineer/attorney with a construction background who represents design professionals, contractors, and others in construction litigation. She also gives seminars on the subject. She enjoys travel, yoga, and encouraging her husband in his gardening and cooking endeavors.

Do You Have the “Right to Remain Silent” in Business Dealings?

As a general rule in Louisiana, a party involved in business dealings may keep silent, but exceptions exist. Sure, where information is volunteered that may influence the other party’s conduct, that information must be truthful, but is there a duty to disclose information harmful to your position?   According to one recent decision, the answer may be “yes.”  

 

In Parkcrest Builders, LLC v. Housing Authority of New Orleans, 2017 WL 193500 (E.D. La. 2017), the court highlighted a wrinkle in the general rule of silence. According to the Parkcrest court, a party to a proposed transaction may have a duty to disclose any information that an ethical person would disclose. This duty complicates matters for a party wishing to disclose as little as possible in order to protect its interests in an arms-length negotiation. It also raises a question: can a party be sued in fraud if they don’t divulge enough information to satisfy the other party?

 

“Fraud” is defined as a misrepresentation or suppression of a material fact, made with the intent to obtain an unjust advantage or to cause a loss or inconvenience to the other party. La. Civil Code article 1953. In order to prove fraud by silence, there must exist a duty to disclose. 

 

Parkcrest involved a public project to construct new affordable housing units where the owner terminated its contract with the contractor and sued the contractor’s bond company. In the suit against the bond company, the owner alleged fraud and claimed that the bond company improperly concealed (1) its intent to rehire the defaulted contractor to complete the project, and (2) the nature of the bond company’s agreement with the contractor. According to Parkcrest, these allegations, if proven, were sufficient to prove fraud by silence. 

  

Given that the law allows recovery of economic losses arising from a party’s reasonable reliance upon information provided by another, businesses need to be careful in what they say, and even in what they don’t say.

When You Can’t Sue – Limits on Contractor Liability

Louisiana law protects building contractors from liability for past projects that otherwise could extend for an indefinite period of time. La. R.S. 9:2772 prohibits any lawsuit against a contractor for damages arising from a construction project five years after: (1) the date project acceptance was filed into the public records; or, if no acceptance was filed, (2) the date of occupancy. This five-year period is referred to as the “peremptive” period.

This law is broad enough to bar untimely claims of breach of contract and negligence, as well as failure to warn of dangerous conditions. It also covers all conceivable building activities: design, construction, consultation, planning, evaluation, construction administration, and land surveying. It applies both to residential and commercial construction. It also covers claims of property damage, personal injury, and wrongful death brought by any person. The only noted exception is where a contractor’s fraud caused the damages.

The law is meant to establish a specific date to cut off the contractor’s liability. Under the law, nothing can interfere with the running of a peremptive period. After it expires, the claim no longer exists.

Construction litigation in this area often focuses on commencement of the peremptive period. For instance, in Celebration Church, Inc. v. Church Mutual Insurance Company, 16-245 (La.App. 5 Cir. 12/14/16), the owner of a shopping center sued its property insurer for roof damage related to Hurricane Isaac. The insurer prevailed in defending the claim based on defective roof repairs made following Hurricane Katrina. The owner then filed suit against the roofer who made the repairs after Hurricane Katrina. To avoid the peremptive defense, the owner argued that peremption did not begin to run until substantial completion of the entire shopping center. The court rejected this argument and held that the law is specific in defining the date of commencement of the peremptive period. It began to run when the tenants first occupied the space. By the time suit was filed, the owner’s claim no longer existed.

Because construction defects may not surface for years, a claim may be barred before the owner even discovers the problem.

Risky Business : “Foreseeable” Damages in Commercial Transactions

Intuitively, contracting parties in commercial transactions understand that legal consequences follow a breach of contract: If a party fails to deliver a product as promised, the breaching party can be liable for the cost to correct the breach; but what is that cost?

Say, for example, a business cancels an order to provide parts to a long-time customer because the relationship has gone sour. Legally, the liability for that breach of contract may extend beyond the cost of the order. A breaching party is liable for damages that are a direct consequence of the failure to perform and that were foreseeable at the time the contract was made, which may include lost profit. If the breach was intentional or malicious, the party’s liability may extend even to direct damages that were not foreseeable.

The business that cancelled the order now faces a jury’s decision to identify the direct and foreseeable losses, a decision that, by its nature, is vague. However, the law imposes a limit on the jury’s prerogative to decide the damages. Even for a bad faith breach of contract, liability arises only for the direct, immediate consequences of the breach and there should be no liability for damages determined to be remote, indirect, or that have no necessary relation to the breach.

In a recent case, a jury found that a defendant boat engine manufacturer breached its contract with plaintiff boat manufacturer by cancelling a purchase order for engines, and further, that the engine manufacturer was in bad faith. The jury awarded $1.8 million in foreseeable lost revenues and $1.3 million in unforeseeable lost profits. The trial court threw out the “unforeseen” portion of the award because it was not a direct damage, and emphasized that a breaching party does not “become the insurer for all misfortunes that may arise from the breach.”

The boat manufacturer had argued that the cash flow expected from the sale of the boats rendered engine-less by the breach would have been invested in more personnel and capital to grow its northwest division. But, because of depleted cash flow from lost sales, that opportunity was lost. The court found, as a matter of law, that this loss was not a direct consequence of the breach, and thus, regardless of the bad faith, was not a recoverable contract damage. Simply, loss of cash flow in one part of the business that had a ripple effect in a separate division was too indirect to be a recoverable damage. See  Marine Power Holding, LLC v. Malibu Boats, LLC, 2016 WL 7241560 (E.D. La. 12/15/2016).

By contrast, courts have found that loss of cash flow is recoverable where directly related to the damages suffered, such as where breach of a contract to deliver chickens to a chicken farmer caused the forced sale of the chicken farm. See Volentine v. Raeford Farms of La.,  50-698 (La.App. 2 Cir. 8/15/16), 201 So.3d 325.

Failure to perform on a contract exposes a business to more than it may realize. Understanding this risk allows for smarter decisions before the breach.

Fourth Circuit Brings Clarity to Peremption Statute in Suit Against Design Professional

The question addressed in MR Pittman Group, LLC versus Plaquemines Parish Government, 2015-0396 (La.App. 4 Cir. 12/2/15) was whether the five-year peremptive period set by La. R.S. 9:5607 displaces Louisiana’s general one-year prescriptive period set by La. C.C. art. 3492, when applied to tort claims against design professionals. Finding a contractor’s claim against the project engineers prescribed, the MR Pittman court held that the one-year prescriptive period governs tort claims against design professionals.