Federal District Court in Pennsylvania Allows Negligence Suit Against Builder, Despite lack of Privity of Contract Between the Parties

By Kimberly L. Karr, K&L Gates, Pittsburgh

A Federal Court in Pennsylvania has handed down a ruling that may expand the pool of potential plaintiffs in construction litigation. See AMCO Insurance Co. v. Emery and Associates, 926 F. Supp. 2d 634 (W.D. Pa. 2013). In AMCO, the court allowed the second owner of a building and its insurer to file suit for negligence against a builder, even though privity of contract did not exist between the parties. See id. at 643.

The case stems from damage to property in Armstrong County, Pennsylvania. The original owners of a property hired a general contractor, Emery, to build a hotel. The owners then sold the hotel to a second owner. Seven years after that, a fire occurred that caused significant damage to the hotel premises. See AMCO, 926 F. Supp. 2d at 637-38.

The second owner filed a claim with its insurance company, AMCO, to recover the cost of the damage due to the fire. AMCO paid their insured $4 million, and then sued the contractor for the claim amount. Among AMCO’s causes of action was an argument that the builder, Emery, acted negligently when it constructed the hotel. Specifically, AMCO alleged that Emery’s failure to comply with local and state building codes attributed (at least in part) to the fire. See id. at 637-39.

Emery petitioned the Federal District Court to dismiss AMCO’s negligence claim, with one reason being that it owed no duty to the second owner and its insurer. See id. at 642. Emery seemed to rely on the lack of direct relationship between the parties to support its claim. See id. at 642-43.

However, the court disagreed. It held that under Pennsylvania law, a “duty of care” could extend from a builder to a second owner and its insurer, even in the absence of a direct relationship (including privity of contract). Quoting a Pennsylvania Superior Court decision, F.D.P. ex rel. S.M.P. v. Ferrara, 804 A.2d 1221, 1231 (Pa. Super. 2002), the AMCO court weighed five factors to determine whether a duty of care was present: (1) the relationship between the parties; (2) the social utility of the actor’s conduct; (3) the nature of the risk imposed and foreseeability of the harm incurred; (4) the consequences of imposing a duty upon the actor; and (5) the overall public interest in the proposed solution. See AMCO, 926 F. Supp. 2d at 643. Applying these factors to Emery, the court ruled that it is reasonable for a builder to assume that a commercial building may have more than one owner, and negligent acts on the part of the builder could affect subsequent owners. The court also emphasized that it is in the public interest to impose a duty on those who are negligent in following required building codes. See id.

Owners, developers, and builders should be mindful of the AMCO decision before starting a construction project in Pennsylvania. If privity of contract is no longer the sole avenue for recovery, parties must consider all potential plaintiffs who might be owed a duty of care.

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Unions and Benefit Fund Trustees Not "Subcontractors" Under Lien Law, According to Pennsylvania Supreme Court

By Kimberly L. Karr, K&L Gates, Pittsburgh

On April 17, 2014, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court ruled that Pennsylvania’s mechanics’ lien law, 49 P.S. § 1101, et seq., does not allow trustees of union benefit funds to bring claims for non-payment as subcontractors against employers and owners. See Bricklayers of W. Pa. Combined Funds Inc. v. Scott’s Dev. Co., Case No. 36 WAP 2012 (Pa. April 17, 2014); Laborers’ Combined Funds of W. Pa. et al. v. Scott’s Dev. Co., Case No. 37 WAP 2012 (Pa. April 17, 2014). The decision reverses the Superior Court, which previously ruled in favor of the unions.

Under the Pennsylvania’s mechanics’ lien law, unpaid subcontractors can record a lien on an owner’s property. See 49 P.S. § 1301. If the primary contractor continues to withhold rightful payment, the subcontractor can foreclose on the lien and force the sale of the property in lieu of compensation. See id. at § 1701.

The question before the Pennsylvania Supreme Court was whether unions and benefit fund trustees could qualify as subcontractors under the mechanics’ lien law. The dispute stemmed from construction work performed by members of two unions on a property in Erie County. General contractor J. William Pustelak Inc. hired the unions using collective bargaining agreements. The agreements specified, among other things, that when the general contractor needed bricklayers and/or laborers, it would obtain them from the unions.

After the work in Erie County went unpaid, the unions filed liens against the property owner, Scott’s Development. The unions sought approximately $42,000 in contributions owed to a fund for the workers’ health, welfare, retirement, and fringe benefits. Scott’s Development objected on the grounds that unions and benefit fund trustees were not considered contractors or subcontractors under Pennsylvania’s mechanics’ lien law. The trial judge dismissed the case, but the Superior Court reinstated it on the basis that the statute should be liberally construed.

The Supreme Court ultimately determined that unions and benefit fund trustees could not be considered subcontractors. It reasoned that a “subcontractor” by definition is a person or business “who performs for and takes from the prime contractor a specific part of the labor or material requirements of the original contract,” as opposed to ordinary laborers. Quoting Clifford F. MacEvoy Co. v. United States for Use & Benefit of Calvin Tomkins, 322 U.S. 102, 109 (1944). The court also cited language from the statute’s official legislative comments, which make a similar distinction between subcontractors and employees. Moreover, according to the court, the trustees could not assert that an implied-in-fact subcontract existed, where the trustees’ claims were based on an express collective bargaining agreement.

The Supreme Court also seemed to consider the effect that the Superior Court’s decision would have if sustained. The court determined that if union workers could be considered “subcontractors” under the mechanics’ lien law, private property owners would then be forced to act as guarantors of contractors’ general employment obligations. According to the Supreme Court, the lower court’s decision would effectively create a new class of claimants that would saddle private property owners with an undue increased risk of litigation. Accordingly, union members and laborers in Pennsylvania are left to recover payment through more traditional theories of liability, such as breach of contract.

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Does the Lack of an Enforceable Contract under HICPA Spell No Recovery for Pennsylvania Contractors?

By Jacquelyn S. Bryan, K&L Gates, Pittsburgh

The Supreme Court of Pennsylvania is set to decide whether the Home Improvement Consumer Protection Act, 73 Pa. C.S. § 517.1-517.18 (“HICPA”), can bar a contractor from recovery under a theory of quantum meruit in the absence of a valid and enforceable home improvement contract under HICPA. See Shafer Elec. & Constr. v. Mantia, -- A.3d --, No. 276 WAL 2013, 2013 WL 5806466 (Pa. Oct. 29, 2013). In the Shafer case, the Superior Court of Pennsylvania reversed a lower court’s dismissal of a mechanics’ lien claim asserted by a contractor against the property of a homeowner on the grounds that the contractor lacked a valid agreement with the homeowner under HICPA. Shafer Elec. & Constr. v. Mantia, 67 A.3d 8 (Pa. Super. Ct. 2013) (relying in part on the Superior Court’s holding in Durst v. Milroy Gen. Contracting, Inc., 52 A.3d 357 (Pa. Super. Ct. 2012)).

The Superior Court rejected the homeowner’s argument that permitting contractors to assert causes of action on a theory of quantum meruit would evade HICPA’s goal of protecting homeowners. Instead, the Superior Court focused on section 517.7(g) of HICPA, which provides:

(g) Contractor’s recovery right.—Nothing in this section shall preclude a contractor who has complied with subsection (a) from the recovery of payment for work performed based on the reasonable value of services which were requested by the owner if a court determines that it would be inequitable to deny such recovery.

Shafer Elec. & Constr., 67 A.3d at 12. The Court noted that “the statute yields an absurd result of providing contractors with an equitable means of recovery under quasi-contract theory, but only whena written contract exists such that quantum meruit recovery is not needed nor allowed by law.” Id. at 13 (emphasis in original). Persuaded by the contractor’s argument that “if this were the intent of the drafters [of the HICPA], to require the contractor to comport with all of the requirements of [section 517.7(a)] to recover in [q]uantum [m]eruit, then the contractor does not need to recover on a [q]uantum [m]eruit theory, for the value of his services, because he would have a valid and enforceable contract on which to rely”, the Court held that the “the General Assembly’s obvious ‘purpose’ in drafting section 517.7(g) was to provide for an equitable remedy in situations where there was no valid and enforceable written contract under section 517.7(a).” Id.

The Supreme Court of Pennsylvania’s decision in Shafer could have important implications for contractors attempting to assert liens under Pennsylvania’s mechanics’ lien law, 49 P.S. § 1101, et seq., and should continue to be closely monitored.

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Recent Third Circuit Decision Provides Insight into Pennsylvania's Approach to CGL Coverage for Faulty Construction Claims

By: Richard F. Paciaroni & Amy Ream, K&L Gates, Pittsburgh

Despite substantial uniformity in language among commercial general liability (“CGL”) policies, the extent of coverage can vary depending upon which state’s law applies.  One contested issue among the states is whether CGL policies should extend coverage for property damage caused by faulty construction, and what the extent of any such coverage should be.  This article discusses a recent opinion reflecting the current status of Pennsylvania law with respect to CGL coverage for faulty construction claims, and briefly touches on the policy behind Pennsylvania’s existing approach.

A recent Third Circuit decision applying Pennsylvania law, Specialty Surfaces International, Inc. v. Continental Casualty Co., addressed the scope of an insurer’s duty to defend and indemnify a contractor for faulty workmanship claims under a CGL policy.  In Specialty Surfaces, the source of the defective construction allegations stemmed from a project to install synthetic turf fields and drainage systems for four schools in the Shasta Union High School District (“Shasta”).  Empire and Associates, Inc. (“Empire”) was hired as a subcontractor to provide and install synthetic turf fields manufactured by Specialty Surfaces, Inc., (“Specialty Surfaces”) as well as to install drainage systems.  Empire and Specialty Surfaces, working together as “Sprinturf,” provided an eight-year warranty for each of the fields.

To continue reading and to view footnotes, click here.

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Municipal Authority's Claim Against Surety for Bad Faith Falls Short

Intercon Constr., Inc. v. Williamsport Mun. Water Auth., 2008 WL 239554 (M.D. Pa. Jan. 28, 2008)

This case involved standard breach of contract claims and counterclaims between a general contractor and a public municipal authority.  In addition, the municipal authority also sued a performance bond surety on claims of bad faith. The municipal authority alleged that the manner in which the surety investigated and denied coverage under the performance bond, and its withholding of certain information from the authority, constituted bad faith under the Pennsylvania bad faith insurance statute. Continue Reading...
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General Contractor Recovers Final Payment on Public Contract, Even Though Subcontractor Violated Prevailing Wage Act

Worth & Co., Inc. v. Dept. of Labor & Ind., 938 A. 2d 239 (Pa. 2007)

In this case, the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania decided the appeal of a general contractor, whose final payment was being withheld by a public school district on account of the GC’s subcontractor’s failure to pay prevailing wages to its workers.  Under the authority of regulations issued by the Department of Labor & Industry’s prevailing wage division, the Department had instructed the school district to withhold final payment from the general contractor, because workers of the subcontractor remainied unpaid following the subcontractor’s default and eventual bankruptcy. Continue Reading...
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No Need for "Base of Operations" Within Municipality in Order for Contractor to be Subject to Business Privilege Tax

V.L. Rendina, Inc. v. City of Harrisburg, 938 A.2d 988 (Pa. 2007)

In this case, a plurality of the Pennsylvania Supreme Court held that a municipality may apply its business privilege tax to the gross receipts from construction work performed within its borders regardless of whether the contractor maintained a “base of operations” within the municipality.  Reversing a Commonwealth Court decision in favor of the construction company, the majority focused on whether the company’s activities in Harrisburg fell within the definitive of “business” contained in the City’s tax ordinance. Continue Reading...
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Appellate Court Accepts Measured Mile Method for Calculating Acceleration of Work Damages in Case of First Impression

James Corp. v. N. Allegheny Sch. Dist., 2007 WL 4208589 (Pa. Commw. Ct. Nov. 30, 2007)

In this case, the Commonwealth Court of Pennsylvania held that the trial court properly measured acceleration damages sustained by a general contractor under the “measured mile” theory of recovery.  In a multi-phased construction project entered into by the school district and James Corporation, the district delayed James’ performance by failing to obtain permits in a timely manner, by requiring extra work which interfered with the planned sequence of work, by relocating fencing and reconfiguring the erosion and sedimentation pond, and by requiring removal of asbestos (which was not in the contract).  Amidst the delay, the district abandoned the contract schedule, refused to consider the time impact on the contractor’s planned sequence, and then terminated the contractor after substantial completion.  The trial court awarded James damages for acceleration/compression of work, unpaid invoices, prevailing wages withheld, attorneys’ fees and expenses. Continue Reading...
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Excessive Withholding Prompts Award of Interest, Attorney's Fees and Penalties under Pennsylvania's Prompt Payment Act

Imperial Excavating and Paving, LLC v. Rizzetto Constr. Mgmt., Inc., 935 A.2d 557 (Pa. Super. Ct. 2007)

Pennsylvania’s Prompt Payment Act (the “PPPA”) is intended to protect contractors and subcontractors by providing guidelines for prompt payment on construction projects.  Under the PPPA, every subcontractor working on a project subject to the PPPA is entitled to payment, according to the proportion of the subcontract completed, within 14 days of the date when the contractor receives a progress payment on the project.  73 PA.STAT. §507(c).  The contractor is, however, entitled to withhold such payment if it has a good faith claim for deficient performance.  73 PA.STAT. §511.  If a contractor unreasonably withholds payment to the subcontractor, the contractor can be assessed interest on the payment (73 PA.STAT. §509) plus a penalty of 1percent per month of the amount that was wrongfully withheld.  73 PA.STAT. §512.  The amount a contractor may withhold is proper if it “bears a reasonable relation to the value of any claim held in good faith.”  See Ruthrauff, Inc. v. Ravin, Inc., 914 A.2d 880 (Pa. Super. Ct. 2006).

The Imperial Excavating case involved the construction of two soccer fields located at a high school.  The grading subcontractor completed its work on the project and submitted an application for payment to the contractor.  The contractor submitted its own application for payment to the owner for the subcontractor’s work, certifying that the sub’s work was completed in accordance with the contract documents.  The owner paid the contractor’s application less retainage, and the contractor paid the subcontractor. Continue Reading...
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Property Owner's Claims Against Professional Engineer Reinstated Where Contractor Placed Water Line Outside of Utility Easement

Merlini v. Gallitzin Water Auth., 934 A. 2d 100 (Pa. Super. Ct. 2007)

In this case, the Superior Court of Pennsylvania held that a professional engineer can be either “ordinarily negligent” or “professionally negligent” in the performance of his consulting engineering tasks, or both.  He can be accountable in damages for mere negligence under common law theories of trespass, even if a plaintiff is not suing him for professional negligence.

This odd outcome is the result of an engineer directing a contractor to install a water line, without right-of-way, easement or permission, in the wrong place on the property owner’s property, that is, in a location outside of the recorded easement.  When the property owner filed a complaint in the court, but did not file the technically required certificate of merit of professional negligence required by the Pennsylvania Rules of Court, the property owner’s complaint was dismissed.  The property owner appealed, and the Superior Court had to determine whether the property owner’s complaint was asserting ordinary negligence or “professional negligence.”
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Be Very Careful When Entering into Settlement Agreements

Ragnar Benson, Inc. v. Hempfield Township Mun. Auth., 916 A.2d 1183 (Pa. Super. Ct. 2007)

The Pennsylvania Superior Court untied the knottiest of two settlement agreements in this case.  Under separate written agreements, Kirby Electric contracted with the Municipal Authority to do its electrical construction, while Ragnar Benson contracted to perform general construction on the Authority’s water pollution control plant.  Each filed a lawsuit against the Municipal Authority, asserting breach of contract, and the Municipal Authority counterclaimed, and cross-claimed accordingly.  Kirby and the Municipal Authority agreed to settle their claims and counterclaims, with the provision that Kirby and Ragnar would continue in litigation and that settlement payments would be calculated based upon the outcome of the two contractors’ litigated dispute.
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