All claims against professional designers are perempted (extinguished) under La. R.S. 9:5607 five years after the project is completed with an exception for fraud. In cases of fraud, an otherwise untimely lawsuit can go forward. For this reason, plaintiffs often allege fraud when the claim may be perempted. This scenario was present in the recent First Circuit decision in Markiewicz v. Sun Constr., L.L.C, 2019-1590 (La. App. 1 Cir. 9/18/20), 2020 WL 5587265. The decision helps to explain when a designer’s alleged conduct falls outside of ordinary negligence based upon the standard of care and becomes fraudulent.
Broadly, fraud is designed as “a misrepresentation or a suppression of the truth made with the intention either to obtain an unjust advantage for one party or to cause a loss or inconvenience to the other.” La. C.C. art. 1953. Fraudulent intent or intent to deceive is a necessary element of a fraudulent misrepresentation. Therefore, fraud cannot be predicated on a mere mistake or negligence, however gross.
In Markiewicz, the plaintiff homeowners filed a class action lawsuit in 2006 arising from flooding of their neighborhood. Ten years later, plaintiffs added as defendants the engineers involved in the design of the drainage system, including the engineers who prepared the surveys for the development. Absent fraud, the newly added claims would be untimely. Plaintiffs alleged that the engineers fraudulently provided incorrect or misleading survey certificates, despite their knowledge that the certificates were incorrect.
The engineers filed a motion for summary judgment on peremption because more than five years had passed from the completion of their services. The engineers argued that plaintiffs could not prove fraud under facts of the case such that the fraud exception would not apply.
The Markiewicz court ruled for defendants. Although there was a dispute as to whether the engineers’ measurements were erroneous, the court found that plaintiffs failed to prove that the services were fraudulent. The plaintiffs provided no evidence that the engineers were aware of any discrepancy in preparing the surveys or that they knowingly misrepresented the surveys. As such, the court found that the fraud exception did not apply, and plaintiffs’ claims against the engineers were perempted. Through its analysis, the Markiewicz court made clear that labelling allegedly negligent conduct as fraudulent is insufficient to defeat a supported motion. While fraud may be established by circumstantial evidence, including highly suspicious facts and circumstances, the court found the record devoid of such facts.