Construction Related Statutes

 

One of the most frequently asked questions when a party is faced with litigation is whether or not they will be able to recover attorney fees. The general rule is that attorney fees cannot be awarded unless there is a contract provision or statute permitting their award. An exception to this rule is if there is a finding of bad faith on the part of one of the parties, which is a difficult standard to meet.

The rules in an arbitration administered by the American Arbitration Association (“AAA”) changed this general rule. Under AAA Rule 48 (d)(ii) “[t]he award of the arbitrator may include an award of attorneys’ fees if all parties have requested such an award or it is authorized by law or their arbitration agreement.” (Emphasis added.) This means that if the parties file a demand for arbitration on the AAA Demand for Arbitration form and check the box for attorneys fees and the opposing party files an answer to the demand on the AAA Answering Statement form and also checks the box for attorneys fees or in its answer demands attorney fees, they can be awarded by the arbitrator. At least one state court has determined that this is because both parties have “agreed” to the award of attorney fees.

Under the Mississippi Construction Arbitration Act, Miss. Code Ann. § 11-15-119(4), “An arbitrator may award attorney’s fees and costs to a prevailing party.” This is statutory authority granting the power of the arbitrator to award attorney fees. There is no similar provision in Mississippi’s general arbitration statutes found at Miss. Code Ann. §§ 11-15-1 et seq.

The important point to take away from this information is if both parties demand attorney fees, be prepared to accept the risk of not prevailing on the merits of your case and being compelled to pay attorney fees even where the contract does not require such payment. When you negotiate a contract, know what any arbitration clause in the contract provides and consider whether you need to modify it to write out AAA Rule (d)(ii) and/or Miss. Code Ann. § 11-15-119(4) to limit the award of attorney fees.

Mississippi’s Little Miller Act, Miss. Code Ann. §§ 31-5-51, et seq., which is modeled after the federal Miller Act, 40 U.S.C. §§3131, et seq., requires that a subcontractor file suit on its payment bond claim “within one (1) year after the day on which the last labor was performed or material was supplied by the person bringing the action and not later.” Miss. Code Ann. § 31-5-53(b). This language appears to be straight forward. Nonetheless, the majority of appellate circuit courts have taken the position that “labor” or “material” furnished for minor work (e.g., punch list, remedial, or warranty-related work) does not toll the statute of limitation. Only “significant” work (relative to the nature of the subcontract work) constitutes “labor” under the Miller Act. Even where the subcontractor has a remaining contractual obligation to perform punch list items or minor corrective work, such work will not toll the 1-year statute of limitation. This means that a subcontractor should carefully monitor the date the last of its labor or material was furnished that rendered their portion of the work functional or substantially complete.

The Mississippi Supreme Court recently decided an appeal concerning whether Miss. Code Ann. § 31-5-41 applied to a performance bond surety where the performance bond incorporates the terms and conditions of a construction contract. Miss. Code Ann. § 31-5-41 provides that all public or private construction contacts that contain a provision agreeing to "indemnify or hold harmless another person from that person’s own negligence is void as against public policy and wholly unenforceable." It also states that "[t]his section does not apply to construction bonds or insurance contracts or agreements."

In the case decided by the Court, the general contractor was sued by the owner of a building for alleged construction defects. The owner also sued the performance bond surety for breach of the performance bond and bad faith denial of its claims. The surety sought to enforce its indemnity agreement with the general contractor. However, the trial court denied the surety’s claim for indemnification finding its potential liability arouse out of its own negligence. The Mississippi Supreme Court reversed the trial court simply finding the language of Miss. Code Ann. § 31-5-41 provides that it does not apply to "contraction bonds or insurance contracts or agreements." The Court went on to state that "[t]his remains true even if the performance bond incorporates the construction contract by reference."

Even though the general contractor was unable to use Miss. Code Ann. § 31-5-41 as a defense against the surety’s claim for indemnity, this statutory provision does afford the general contractor protection against broad indemnity provisions in other construction related contracts.

The Mississippi Supreme Court has decided to retain the case styled Architex Association, Inc. v. Scottsdale Insurance Company; Case No. 2008-CA-01353. The construction industry is hopeful that the Mississippi Supreme Court will provide some clarity in the area of insurance coverage for defective construction under CGL policies. Several years ago, the United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit in ACS Construction Company v. CGU, 332 F.3d 885 (5th Cir. 2003) muddied the waters when it held:

Under Mississippi law, Moulton [Allstate Ins. Co. v. Moulton, 464 So.2d 507 (Miss. 1985)] and Omnibank [United States Fidelity & Guaranty Co. v. Omnibank, 812 So.2d 196 (Miss. 1996)]make clear that in a CGL insurance policy which defines an "occurrence" as an "accident," coverage is triggered if the underlying act was intentional and deliberate. These cases also make clear that an "occurrence" defined as an "accident" in a CGL insurance policy does not refer to the unintended consequences of the act. Thus, the district court did not err when it applied Moulton and Ominbank and concluded that ACS’s intent to subcontract with Chamberlin/Southern and its intent to install the waterproofing membrane to the bunker roofs did not constitute an "occurrence" under its CGL insurance policy with CGU to trigger coverage. For the foregoing reasons we AFFIRM the judgment of the district court.

After ACS, the insurance industry became strident in its position that there was no coverage under the CGL policy for defective work by a subcontractor because such defective work did not constitute an "occurrence" thereby triggering coverage under the CGL policy. There are a number of jurisdictions that have confronted the issue with differing outcomes. However, there is currently no definitive Mississippi decision which specifically addresses this issue.

The issues which the Mississippi Supreme Court have been asked to address by the construction industry in Architex are as follows:

Whether unexpected, unforeseen and unintended defects in a subcontractor’s work, resulting in unexpected, unforeseen and unintended property damage, is an "occurrence" as defined in a CGL policy?

Whether a CGL policy written on the 1986 standard form that includes an exception from exclusion for property damage arising out of the work of a subcontractor provides completed operations coverage if that subcontractor’s work proves to be defective and causes property damage?

Amicus briefs have been filed by the Associated General Contractors of America; the Associated General Contractors of Mississippi, Inc.; Associated Builders and Contractors, Inc. Mississippi Associated Builders and Contractors, Inc.; the Mississippi Asphalt Pavement Association, Inc. and the American Subcontractors Association, Inc. and the American Subcontractors Association of Mississippi, Inc. Pursuant to Miss. Code Ann. §9-4-3, the Mississippi Supreme Court is required to render decisions on appeal within 270 calendar days after final briefs are filed, which was June 17, 2009. Accordingly, a decision from the Court should be issued sometime in April 2010. Stay tuned.

 

 

Contractors, subcontractors, suppliers and even owners can become frustrated at the length of time it takes to have a dispute reach the courthouse.  Their lawyers are also frequently concerned about whether jurors will be able to understand the complex issues associated with a construction dispute.  One way to address this problem is to agree to a bench trial.  If the parties can agree to a bench trial, Miss. Code Ann. § 11-1-18 (Supp. 2008) provides as follows:

If the parties to a cause of action agree, any claim filed alleging damages may receive a bench trial which shall be conducted in two hundred seventy (270) days or less after the cause of action has been filed. The cause of action shall be a priority item in the court.

Emphasis added.  This statute is frequently overlooked but could be just the answer for a contractor that wants a timely resolution of its dispute.