Tag: liability

Real Estate Liability: Recovery Denied in “As Is” Sale Despite Quick Discovery of Mold

In the recent case of Riedel v. Fenasci, 2018-0540 (La. App. 1 Cir. 12/28/18), _______ So. 3d _______, 2018 WL 6818716, home buyers sued the sellers and the involved real estate agents after mold was discovered shortly following the sale. This is a common fact pattern in humid South Louisiana. The buyers lost in the trial court when there was no evidence that the sellers or the agents knew of the problem. The result was affirmed by the First Circuit Court of Appeal. 

The Riedels identified mold weeks after the closing and filed a claim with their homeowner’s insurer. But the claim was denied when the insurer’s inspection revealed long- term damage, rot, and deterioration in a ceiling due to water damage.  That finding prompted the suit.

Against the sellers, the Riedels contended that they “had to have known” about the moisture and mold in the home prior to the sale.  Because the home was sold “as is,” they had to establish fraud to recover. However, the sellers had not lived in the home for years and had received no complaints from tenants over this time. Under such facts, the claim of fraud was not supported.

The Riedels also sued both agents for negligent misrepresentation, and their own agent for breach of fiduciary duty.  In assessing the claim against the agents, the Riedel Court agreed that real estate agents are liable for negligent misrepresentation when they fail to disclose hidden defects in the property which were known or should have been known to them. The Court also agreed that a purchaser’s real estate agent owes a fiduciary duty, the highest duty of care recognized by law.  Nevertheless, when the plaintiffs’ own inspector found no visible evidence of mold prior to the sale and there was no indication that the agents possessed prior knowledge of the mold, the claim against the agents was also dismissed.

Marty Golden has been practicing law based in Baton Rouge, Louisiana for over thirty years, concentrating in civil litigation primarily involving injuries, property damage, insurance coverage, and contract disputes. Much of his practice is defending and advising real estate agents in suits by property buyers and sellers, but Marty also defends other professionals, insurance companies, manufacturers, and business owners. Marty has a special interest in all things procedural, because they are the rules of the road for litigators and knowing them better than his opponent gives him a leg up in court.

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.

The Duty to Defend Continues to Evolve in Louisiana

Louisiana is a “direct action” state that continues to present new challenges for insurers. Over the years, Louisiana courts have expanded the duty to defend. This expansion created pitfalls for the insurer and forced the provision of a complete defense, even when all or a majority of the claim was not covered by the insurance policy. However, some of this expansion has been drawn back by the Louisiana Supreme Court which recently ruled that, in latent, long-term exposure cases, the duty to defend is to be spread across a number of years­­­–as opposed to the arbitrary selection of a single insurer to defend the entirety of the case. This change presents opportunities for immediate risk transfer and reimbursement to recoup what can be significant dollars invested in the defense of legacy and environmental actions.

A General Overview: Like many other states, an insurer’s duty to defend suits against its insured is broader than its liability for damage claims. The duty to defend is determined by the factual allegations contained in the plaintiff’s petition, which are to be broadly construed. American Home Assurance Co. v. Czarniecki, 230 So.2d 253 (La. 1969). The court examines the duty under the “eight corners” rule which means that the duty attaches if a review of the four corners of the policy and the petition raises the potential for coverage and coverage is not unambiguously excluded. Once a complaint states one claim within the policy’s coverage, the insurer has the duty to defend the entire claim, even though other claims in the complaint fall outside the policy’s coverage. Treadway v. Vaughn, 633 So.2d 626 (La. App. 1 Cir. 1993), writ denied, 635 So.2d 233 (La. 1994).

Execution of the defense duty can present big challenges given that Louisiana is a direct action state where the attorney is often called upon to represent both the insured and the insurer. If the insurer does not properly handle the assignment, coverage positions can be waived. See Steptore v. Masco Const. Co., 643 So. 2d 1213 (La. 8/18/94); Sosebee v. Steadfast Ins. Co., 701 F.3d 1012, 1020 (5th Cir. 2012).  Additionally, insurers must recognize that Louisiana has recognized Cumis (insured selected) counsel in situations when coverage positions issue. Belanger v. Gabriel Chemicals, Inc., 00-0747 (La.App. 1 Cir. 5/23/01); 787 So.2d 559, writ denied, 01-2289 802 (La. 2001); So.2d 612 (citing 46 C.J.S.§ 1157 (1993). In such a situation, independent counsel must be separately retained to represent the diverging interests.

When is the duty to defend discharged: The court will determine whether exhaustion of policy limits will terminate an insurer’s obligation to defend the insured on a case-by-case basis, taking into consideration whether the settlement was made in good faith. Holtzclaw v. Falco, 355 So.2d 1279 (La. 1977). An insurer that “hastily enters a questionable settlement simply to avoid further defense obligations under the policy” does not act in good faith and may be held liable for damages caused to its insured. Pareti v. Sentry Indemnity Co., 536 So.2d 417, 423 (La. 1988). The timing of its withdrawal from the suit is critical to a determination of the insurer’s good faith. A tender of policy limits into the registry of the court may terminate the duty to defend; however, the tender must comply with all of the statutory requirements (to include the admission of liability). In this connection, an insurer who wishes to tender its limits and admit liability may well face a challenge from the insured that such action is a breach of its good faith obligations. Pareti, supra.

Long-Tail Exposure Cases: For some time now, Louisiana courts have recognized the concept of “horizontal spreading” over a number of years based on the “trigger” of coverage each year a policy was in place. See Cole v. Celotex Corp., 599 So. 2d 1058 (La. 1992) and Norfolk Southern Corp. v. Cal. Union Ins. Co., 859 So. 2d 167, 192 (La. App. 2003),writ denied, 861 So. 2d 578 (2003). The practical effect is to hold each insurer liable to indemnify only for its pro-rata time on the risk and, if the insured was not covered for a period of time, it bore its own pro-rata portion of the risk.

Until recently, the courts held that the duty to defend in such actions was a solidary (joint and several) obligation, meaning that the insured could select any carrier and require it to defend the entire claim. Simply, the courts held that the duty to defend was not subject to proration such that an insurer who was on the risk for a very short time could be compelled to pay all of the fees and costs and must then file a reimbursement action to collect from other insurers. But, the Louisiana Supreme Court recently ruled that defense costs are now subject to proration in the same manner as with indemnity. Arceneaux v. Amstar Corp., 15-0588 (La. 9/7/16); 200 So 3d 277.

At the outset, almost every long-tail exposure claim is a complex action that can take years to resolve. It is nearly always a very expensive proposition in terms of defense costs.  The Arceneaux decision has meaningful, real-world impact upon both the insurer and the insured.

From the insurer’s perspective, it can easily calculate its percentage of time on the risk and thereby readily ascertain what it owes in the defense of the action. Insurers can applaud the fact that they no longer pay for uninsured time on the risk or the portion of recalcitrant insurers who do not wish to “participate” in a joint defense.

From the insured’s perspective, new incentive exists to scour all avenues to find older policies that may have been on the risk to avoid having direct participation in defense costs. In this regard, the insured will now have strong monetary incentive to keep all policies on file (or to take depositions of agents and brokers to identify coverage that may have been in place). Of course, insurers who otherwise might have remained unknown might now have an active role in long-tail exposure cases.

 

John Wolff is a member of the management committee and a senior partner at Keogh Cox with more than thirty years of experience. John has made his mark in a practice that has included complex litigation, commercial disputes, serious injury, bad-faith and insurance coverage, legacy/long-term exposure, and other matters. He has litigated numerous significant cases in state and federal courts and regularly appears before the courts of appeals in and out of the state. John has devoted attention to non-profit boards dedicated to assisting at-risk children. In his spare time, he enjoys spending time with wife, his three children, and grandchildren, playing tennis, and hiking.