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.
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.
The period of time before the contract is signed in one of optimism. After all, few sign a contract expecting problems. But if you do not consider the many “what ifs,” you may be left holding the bag. And this “bag” may include indemnity provisions which could force you respond for the actions of other parties.
Many contracts include “indemnity” or “hold harmless” provisions. Black’s Law Dictionary defines indemnity as “a duty to make good any loss, damage, or liability incurred by another.” Like many states, Louisiana allows one party to agree to pay for the damages caused by the fault of the other, if this intention is sufficiently expressed. However, there are broad statutory exceptions that can nullify the indemnity requirement.
Parties to construction contracts should be careful not to blindly rely upon indemnity provisions because the Louisiana legislature in La. R.S. 9:2780.1 declared invalid any indemnity provision where a party seeks indemnity from another for its own fault.
Despite the broad nullification of certain types of indemnity provisions in construction contracts, current Louisiana law allows a party to be indemnified for its own fault when the other party obtains insurance to cover the risk, and recovered the cost of insurance in the contract price. For example, a general contractor can require a subcontractor to indemnify the general contractor for the general contractor’s fault, as long as the subcontractor obtains insurance for this obligation, and was paid that amount under the contract.
Indemnity obligations are not always as they seem. Even in the pre-contract period of optimism, you may want to contact an attorney so you won’t be left holding the bag.
Chelsea Payne is an associate at Keogh Cox and has been practicing for three years. Her practice mainly relates to construction law and complex litigation. Chelsea enjoys playing tennis and spending time with her family.