Category: Contracts

Did You Just Create a Contract?

You tell a contractor you want him to repair a problem. Before leaving your house, the contractor says he will “look into it” and “get back to you.” Have you just made an oral contract for the repair? The answer to this question is no, according to Hodson v. Daron Cavaness Builder, Inc., 2017-1235 (La. App. 1 Cir. 2/27/18), a recent First Circuit Decision.

In Louisiana, an oral contract for over $500 must be proved by at least one witness and other corroborating circumstances. See La. C.C. art. 1846. The person trying to enforce the oral contract may serve as her own witness to meet this standard, but evidence of the corroborating circumstances must come from some other source. In Hodson, the plaintiff observed cracks in her floor and called a contractor to examine the problem. The plaintiff made it clear she wanted the contractor to repair the floor. While the contractor denied promising to fix the floor, he admitted that he promised to “look into it and get back with her in a week or two.” Despite his promise, he never called the homeowner back.

The plaintiff filed suit and claimed she was entitled to recover damages for the cost of repairing her floor. The Trial Court found the contractor’s admissions to be enough “corroborating evidence” to establish an oral contract for the repair. However, the First Circuit found the parties did not make an oral contract to repair the floor. Instead, the contractor only agreed to “look into it.” According to the Hodson Court, a “broken promise to look into a situation does not equate to an oral agreement to repair.”

The Hodson decision shows that while Louisiana law allows parties to create oral contracts, it can be difficult to prove that a contract was actually formed or to define the details of the agreement. If you put the agreement in writing, you won’t be left wondering whether you just created a contract.

 

Reynolds LeBlanc is a partner at Keogh Cox. His practice areas include commercial litigation, personal injury claims, appeals, and other matters. Reynolds is a former teacher, who in his free time plays music and perpetually talks himself into training for his next marathon.

RENTER BEWARE: Hidden Risks in Lease Agreements

With home prices soaring in today’s housing market, many people choose to rent rather than buy. Factored into their decision is the style, the square footage, the location, and other criteria, but few renters consider one risk that comes with many, if not most, leases. Many renters are exposed to personal liability for accidents occurring on the premises, and they don’t even know it.

A lease is executed between the renter/tenant (the “lessee”) and the property owner (the “lessor”). By law, the lease imposes general obligations on both parties.

The lessee (renter) is bound:

1. to pay the rent in accordance with the agreed terms;

2. to use the thing as a prudent administrator and in accordance with the purpose of which it was leased; and,

3. to return the thing at the end of the lease in a condition that is the same as it was when the thing was delivered to him, except for normal wear and tear. LSA C.C. Art. 2683

The lessor (property owner) is bound:

1. to deliver the thing to the lessee;

2. to maintain the thing in a condition suitable for the purpose of which is was leased; and,

3. to protect the lessee’s peaceful possession for the duration of the lease.” LSA C.C. Art. 2682.

These general obligations are typically expanded by terms in the lease because the lessee and lessor are “free to contract for any object that is lawful, possible and determined or determinable.” Family Care Services, Inc. v. Owens, 46 So.3d 234 (La. App. 2 Cir. 8/11/10). This “freedom of contract” allows the parties to construct their own bargains, shifting certain rights and obligations. In many commercial and residential lease agreements, this shifting includes a transfer of the liability for vices or defects on or in the leased premises.

Although the lessor warrants that the leased premises is free of vices or defects, Louisiana law allows the lessee to assume responsibility for the condition of the leased premises under LA. R.S. 9:3221. Often, lessees assume that the lessor, as the owner of the premises, will be responsible if there is an accident. However, cases such as Jamison v. D’Amico, 955 So.2d 161 (La. App. 4th Cir. 3/14/07) demonstrate that the owner may be entirely free of fault even though they owned a defective premises which caused an accident. In Jamison, a worker was injured when a floor collapsed beneath her. There was insufficient evidence that the owner was aware of the defective floor. Because the lease contained a clause shifting responsibility, the owner was under no duty to inspect the premises and was dismissed from the case.

A lesson to all renters: read and understand the provisions in your lease. Even if you like the colors and the location, you should also like the lease contract before you sign it.

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.

Going Once, Going Twice … A New Alternative to Design-Bid-Build Contracts

The 2014 Legislative Session brought new possibilities for large construction projects under the Public Contract Law. Generally, a public entity is required to separately hire a design professional to design the project, and let the project out for public bid for the construction work. “Design-build” contracts, in which the public owner contracts with one entity for the design and construction of the facility, are prohibited under Public Contract Law.  However, the Legislature has now given public entities another option under the Public Bid Law: Construction Management at Risk Delivery Method (CMAR).

What’s the Delay? Contractor Delay Damages Under the Public Bid Law

Generally, a provision in a construction contract for private work limiting the contractor’s right to recover additional costs arising from delays outside of the contractor’s control may be enforceable. However, under the Public Bid Law, such a provision has been found to be against public policy. La. R.S. 38:2216 prohibits any public contract provision that purports to waive, release or extinguish the rights of a contractor to recover delay damages if the delay was caused in whole or in part by the acts or omission of the public entity.

Do Not Pass Go

The Louisiana Supreme Court recently considered the recoverability of indirect economic damages caused by negligent injury to property of others in MAW Enterprises, LLC, et al v. City of Marksville, et al. The Court found the defendant’s duty did not include liability for damages resulting from negligent interference of a contract, and dismissed the case.

Fraud Just Got More Expensive – Equity as a Factor in Attorney Fee Awards

The Louisiana Supreme Court recently held that the New Home Warranty Act (“NHWA”) is not the exclusive remedy for a purchaser of a new home where the builder fails to disclose known defects in the Residential Property Disclosure Act (“RPDA”). Stutts v. Melton, 2013-0557, — So.2d. —-. The Court also upheld an award of damages and attorney fees for fraud victims who elect not to seek rescission of a sales contract despite no Civil Code article expressly allowing for attorney fees in such instances.

To Err is Human, To Rescind-Declined

The Louisiana Supreme Court recently addressed the impact of contractual “errors” in Cynthia Fry Perionnet and Elizabeth Fry Franklin v. Matador Resources Company, 2012-2292, 2012-2377, — So. 3d –.

The Perionnet case involved a dispute over the intent of a contract to extend a mineral lease. The property owners believed that the lease was extended as to only 168.95 acres of nonproducing land. The defendant/lessors argued that the contract contemplated that the lease would extend to the entire 1850.34 acres to include producing wells. Plaintiffs/property owners argued that their unilateral error regarding the terms of the contract was ground for rescission. The jury ruled in favor of the defendant/lessors. The Court of Appeal reversed. The Supreme Court granted writs.