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.
The Supreme Court ruling in Couvillion Group, LLC v. Plaquemines Parish Government, 2020 -00074 (La. 4/27/20) is a reminder that an indemnity claim must be sufficiently related to the principal demand and that contract indemnity provisions are to be strictly construed.
In Couvillion, the general contractor sued the owner of a public works port project for contract delay damages resulting from a cease work order issued to allow redesign of a fuel tank platform. When the contractor submitted its delay claim, the owner requested that its project engineer review it and make recommendations. The engineer recommended payment of a little over $1 million dollars. When the owner refused to pay, the contractor sued. In response, the owner filed a third-party demand against the engineer alleging that its recommendation was erroneous and excessive and that, if it was bound by the engineer’s recommendation, then the engineer must indemnify the owner.
On behalf of the engineer, Keogh Cox attorneys argued that the engineer should not be required to reimburse the owner for any delay costs and asked for dismissal through an exception of no cause of action. Code of Procedure Article 1111 provides that a defendant in a principal action may bring in any person who may be liable to him for all or part of the principal demand. Here, that was not the situation. The engineer was not liable to the owner for any part of the contractor’s delay claim because the engineer did not cause the delay. The delay damages were incurred before the engineer made a recommendation for payment. The events giving rise to the two claims were separate and distinct: the main demand arose from the project delay and the third- party demand arose from the engineer’s recommendation of the claim amount. The Court commented that the principal claim against the owner for delay damages was too attenuated from the owner’s claim against the engineer, thus the third-party demand was improper.
The owner also relied on the indemnity provision in the engineer’s contract that required the engineer to indemnify the owner against any and all claims for personal injury or “damages to property” that may arise from its services. The Court held that the plain meaning of the term did not include the economic-only losses related to the subject delay claim. The Court further reasoned that indemnity agreements are to be strictly construed, rejecting the owner’s broader interpretation.
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.