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September 11, 2013

Home Improvement Contracts

House painter.jpgIndiana has a relatively little known statute, the Home Improvement Contracts statute located in Title 24, Article 25, Chapter 11 of the Indiana Code, that protects the customers of home improvement contractors by establishing certain minimum contract requirements. Home improvement contractors are well advised to ensure that their contracts comply with the statute because those who violate it may find themselves on the receiving end of a lawsuit under companion Chapter 0.5 (Deceptive Consumer Sales) filed either by their customers or by the Indiana Attorney General. This article describes only some of the statutory requirements, and home improvement contractors who want to make sure they comply should seek legal advice.

Applicability

The Home Improvement Contacts statute applies to contracts between a consumer and a "home improvement supplier" for any alteration, repair, replacement, reconstruction, or other modification to residential property, whether the consumer owns, leases, or rents the residence, but only if the contract is for more than $150. The statute defines "home improvement supplier" as someone who engages in or solicits home improvement contracts, even if that person does not actually do the work. For example, if a homeowner buys installed carpet from a carpet store, the contract to install the carpet is covered by the Home Improvement Contracts statute even if the store owner doesn't actually perform the installation but instead subcontracts the work to someone else.

Contract Requirements

Not surprisingly, home improvement contracts must be in writing. Although the Home Improvement Contracts statute does not include an express requirement for a written contract, and although the definition of "home improvement contract" includes oral agreements, as a practical matter it is impossible for an oral contract to comply with the statute.

Section 10(a) of the Home Improvement Contracts statute includes a laundry list of requirements. For example, the contract must include the name of the consumer and address of the home; the name, address, and telephone number of the contractor; the date the contract was presented to the consumer; a reasonably detailed description of the work; if specifications are not included in the description, then a statement that specifications will be provided separately and are subject to consumer approval; approximate start and end dates for the work; a statement of contingencies that may seriously alter the completion date; and the contract price.

The requirement that the contract contain specifications (or a statement that specifications will be supplied later for approval by the consumer) deserves a little more attention. The statute defines specifications as "the plans, detailed drawings, lists of materials, or other methods customarily used in the home improvement industry as a whole to describe with particularity the work, workmanship, materials, and quality of materials for each home improvement." Note that a specification must describe the work, workmanship, materials, and quality of materials with particularity.

Consider, for example, a contract to paint the exterior of a home. Does it comply with the requirement for a contract to contain specifications if the only description of the work is, "Paint all exterior siding and window frames with gray exterior latex paint"? Does that describe the work "with particularity"? Probably not. For example, it does not specify the number of coats of paint, obviously a significant consideration. Moreover, the specification of "exterior latex paint" is probably inadequate in light of the range of quality and prices of exterior latex paint available on the market, and "gray" is probably not specific enough either, given that paint stores carry a wide spectrum of colors that can reasonably be called gray.

Specific Requirements and Accommodations for Work Covered by Insurance

Section 10(b) of the statute deals with special issues presented by contracts to repair damage that is to be covered by an insurance policy. Several of the provisions provide alternative ways for the contract to comply with the general requirements listed in Section 10(a). For example, the requirement to include the start date can be satisfied by specifying that the repairs will begin within a specified amount of time after it is approved by the insurance company. Similarly, the contract price can be expressed by stating the amount owed by the consumer in addition to the amount of the insurance proceeds, and that includes a contract provision that the contractor will not charge the consumer any amount above the amount of the insurance proceeds. Note, however, that because of the prohibitions in Section 10.5 (discussed below), the consumer is responsible for any insurance deductible.

More importantly, Section 10(b) requires home improvement contracts for repairing exterior damage that covered by insurance to give the consumer a right to cancel the contract within three days of receiving notice from the insurance company denying coverage for some or all of the repairs. The contract must include some very specific language dealing with the right to cancel, and it also must include a form, attached to but easily removable from the contract, that the consumer can use to cancel the contract.

Prohibitions

Section 10.5 of the statute also contains some prohibitions that home improvement contractors need to know about. One has already been mentioned -- contractors are prohibited from paying or rebating to the consumer any part of an insurance deductible or giving any sort of gift, allowance, or anything else of monetary value to the consumer to cover the insurance deductible, including things like referral fees and payments in exchange for the consumer allowing the contractor to place a sign in the yard.

As another example, Section 10.5(d) contains a blanket prohibition on home improvement contractors acting as public adjusters.

Continue reading "Home Improvement Contracts" »

September 7, 2012

Construction Manager Liability: Part three


Construction contract.jpgI explained in my last two posts how construction managers can be subject to liability when a construction contractor's employee is injured. Ordinarily, the construction manager has no duty to provide a safe workplace for the employees of a construction contractor and, therefore, is generally not liable for injuries to those employees. However, a construction manager can assume a duty to those employees in one of two ways -- either by contract or by actions -- and end up with liability for injuries.

For that reason, some construction managers have been reluctant to have any involvement with safety programs. By drafting contracts carefully, a construction manager can be fairly certain of not assuming a duty contractually, but it is difficult to know exactly what actions a construction manager can or cannot take without incurring liability. The Plan-Tec and Hunt cases discussed in our last post create some certainty. Specifically, a construction manager may take on contractual commitments to perform certain actions without assuming a duty to the employees of construction contractors and, consequentially, without incurring liability it would not otherwise have.

However, the construction management must avoid contractually undertaking to be the "insurer of safety for everyone on the project." Here are some examples of what a construction manager should include in the construction management contract:

(a) To "make certain its avoidance of liability" the court in Hunt said a construction manager can include a provision with language expressly disavowing responsibility for job-site safety (EX: "in no case shall...the Construction Manager...have either direct or indirect responsibility for matters relative to Project safety.").

(b) In Plan-Tec, the court held that the construction manager had not assumed a duty because the construction management contract "unequivocally state[d] that the contractors were to have the responsibility for project safety and the safety of their employees." This language demonstrates that the responsibility for project safety belonged to the construction contractors, not the construction manager.

(c) Hunt's contract stated that the construction manager's services were "rendered solely for the benefit of the [Project Owner] and not for the benefit of the Contractors, the Architect, or other parties performing Work or services with respect to the Project." This confirmed that no one but the Project Owner, not even a subcontractor's injured employee, could expect to "benefit" from Hunt's contract with the Project Owner or claim the contract obligated Hunt to assure their safety.

(d) Hunt's contract provided that Hunt was not "assuming the safety obligations and responsibilities of the individual Contractors," and that Hunt was not to have "control over or charge of or be responsible for...safety precautions and programs in connection with the Work of each of the Contractors, since these are the Contractor's responsibilities." In addition, it said that the construction contractor was the "controlling employer responsible for its own safety programs and precautions," and Hunt's responsibility to review, monitor, and coordinate those programs did "not extend to direct control over or charge of the acts or omissions of the Contractors, Subcontractors, their agents or employees or any other persons performing portions of the Work and not directly employed by Hunt." This proved that Hunt was not vicariously liable for a subcontractor's negligence in executing its own safety precautions.

Given the above contract provisions which help construction managers to avoid contractually assuming responsibility for job-site safety, consider one related reminder about avoiding liability as a result of actions. Remember how construction managers can become liable when they voluntarily perform safety obligations beyond what they previously agreed to in the construction management contract? For this reason, one last contract provision which would benefit construction managers could require that, if the project owner demands that construction manager begin to perform additional safety obligations, such new obligations would first be incorporated into the original contract via an amendment. This would serve as a contractual way to manage the risk of that other means of incurring liability - the construction manager's actions.

Now, here are some examples of what a construction manager seeking to avoid liability should not include in a construction management contract:

(a) Provisions by which the construction manager accepts the "duty to maintain safety on the project."

(b) Provisions providing that the construction manager is responsible for the contractors' compliance with state and federal regulations. A provision like that could show that the construction manager was undertaking legal oversight of the subcontractors. As recounted in point (d) above, construction managers can safely contract to review, monitor, and coordinate safety programs and precautions, but not to be responsible for those programs as the "controlling employer." The important inquiry is whether the construction manager has agreed to ensure contractors' compliance with the law or whether the construction manager has only agreed to monitor contractors' compliance for the project owner.

(c) Language such as: the construction manager "shall take reasonable precautions for safety of...employees on the Work."

(d) Language such as: The construction manager "shall take all necessary precautions for the safety of employees on the work."

(e) Language such as: The construction manager "shall take all necessary precautions for the safety of all employees on the project."

Ultimately, the Indiana Supreme Court held that even though Hunt had agreed to some safety-related responsibilities in the original contract, those responsibilities didn't invoke "vicarious liability." In doing so, the court chose to further the policy of providing "a way of promoting safety without exposing contract managers to suits like this one," rather than encourage construction managers to avoid taking on any responsibility for promoting job-site safety for fear of incurring liability.

Continue reading "Construction Manager Liability: Part three" »

July 18, 2012

Construction Manager Liability: Part two

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As discussed in my last post, general contractors and construction managers have very different roles in a construction project. General contractors are sometimes sued when their subcontractor's employees are injured on the job, but that's not as often the case for construction managers. In addition, the liability analysis is quite different for construction managers because, unlike general contractors, construction managers do not have overall responsibility to perform the construction and they generally only contract with project owners, not with other subcontractors. A recent Indiana Supreme Court opinion, ("Hunt Construction Group, Inc. v. Garrett") ("Hunt")sheds light on the analysis of construction manager liability.

The opinion concluded litigation which had arisen out an accident which occurred during the construction of the Lucas Oil Stadium. In Hunt, a subcontractor's employee was injured and subsequently sued the construction manager ("Hunt"). The Hunt court based its analysis on Plan-Tec, Inc. v. Wiggins ("Plan-Tec"), the first reported case in Indiana where the employee of a subcontractor sued a construction manager. Indiana courts use Plan-Tec as a "template" to evaluate claims of negligence against construction managers for injuries suffered by subcontractors' employees, and the central test of the template specifically says that "a construction manager owes a legal duty of care for job-site employee safety in two circumstances: (1) when such a duty is imposed upon the construction manager by a contract to which it is a party, or (2) when the construction manager assumes such a duty, either gratuitously or voluntarily.'" Thus, a court will determine whether a construction manager is liable for the employee's injury based on the construction manager's contracts and actions, and only one of these is necessary to prove liability.

Three things in Plan-Tec led the court to find no contractual liability for the construction manager: (1) The construction manager's contract did not specify that the construction manager had any safety responsibilities, (2) the subcontractor's contracts clearly indicated they had responsibility for project safety and the safety of their employees, and (3) the subcontractor's contracts expressly disclaimed that the construction manager had any direct or indirect responsibility for project safety.

Unlike in Plan-Tec, in Hunt, the construction manager's contract did impose some general safety-related responsibilities on the construction manager. For example, Hunt was responsible for approving contractors' safety programs, monitoring compliance with safety regulations, performing inspections, and addressing safety violations. Hunt also had the ability to remove any employee or piece of equipment deemed unsafe. However, the court determined that none of the safety-related provisions imposed on Hunt a specific legal duty to or responsibility for the safety of all employees at the construction site. Instead, the contract included "clear language limiting [Hunt's] liability" which persuaded the court that the construction manager did not have a legal duty of care to subcontractor's employees for job-site safety. We will explore that specific contractual language which limited Hunt's liability in the next post.

But even if construction managers are not liable because of their contracts, they can still, by their actions or conduct, assume "a legal duty for job-site employee safety." In Plan-Tec, it was Plan-Tec's assuming of new supervisory duties beyond those required by the initial construction documents and after the project had already begun which raised the issue of whether it had assumed by its actions such a legal duty of care. For example, Plan-Tec took on extra responsibility by appointing a safety director, initiating weekly safety meetings, directing that certain safety precautions be taken by the subcontractors, and daily inspecting the scaffolding (which scaffolding ultimately injured the employee in that case). However, in Hunt, the court affirmed that the Plan-Tec ruling does not mean that a construction manager must avoid all such responsibilities in order to avoid liability for workplace injuries. In fact, Hunt had equally undertaken each of the previously mentioned actions taken by Plan-Tec. The difference was that, in Hunt's situation, none of these actions were beyond those required by the original construction documents, and (as discussed above) those documents limited Hunt's liability. This simple fact indicated to the court that Hunt did not by its actions assume a legal duty for the employee's safety. Because Hunt neither assumed a duty by its contracts nor its actions, Hunt prevailed.

Continue reading "Construction Manager Liability: Part two" »

July 5, 2012

Construction Manager Liability: Part one of a three-part series

Thumbnail image for iStock_000017631785XSmall.jpgWhen it comes to occupational injuries, the construction industry is among the most dangerous. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, in 2010 there were more fatal occupational injuries in construction than in any other private industry sector. And when a worker is injured, it sometimes leads to a lawsuit.

In most cases, the workers' compensation statue (in Indiana, Ind. Code 22-3) restricts the amount an injured worker can recover from his or her employer to the amount of workers' compensation insurance, but it does not limit the amount the worker can recover from anyone else. See Ind. Code 22-3-2-13. For example, the workers' compensation statute does not prohibit an employee of a construction subcontractor from recovering from the general contractor or a construction manager. It is not uncommon for general contractors to be sued when their subcontractor's employees are injured on the job, and there are a number of reported cases in Indiana dealing with that type of claim. However, in the recent case of Hunt Construction Group, Inc. v. Garrett, the Indiana Supreme Court had an opportunity to address the liability of a construction manager. I'll discuss that case in the next couple of postings, but first let's look more closely at the difference between a general contractor and a construction manager.

Although the roles of construction managers and general contractors are sometimes confused, they are really very different. A general contractor has the obligation to the owner of a construction project to perform the work necessary to complete the project. In most cases, of course, a general contractor does not actually do all the work but rather subcontracts at least part of the work to one or more subcontractors (for example, to an electrical subcontractor or a mechanical subcontractor). In other words, the general contractor works for the owner, and the subcontractors work for the general contractor. The owner pays the general contractor for the entire cost of the project, and the general contractor pays the subcontractors out of the amount it receives from the owner. If a subcontractor makes a mistake, the general contractor is accountable to the owner for that mistake, just as if the general contractor made the mistake itself. Naturally, managing its subcontractors is an inherent part of a general contractor's job, and the general contractor has a great deal of direct control over the subcontractors.

Sometimes, however, the owner of a project hires a construction manager to oversee the construction project and to coordinate the work of all the various contractors and subcontractors on the project. Unlike a general contractor, a construction manager is not responsible for actually building the project. The construction manager essentially acts as the owner's on-the-site representative with responsibilities such as managing the budget, the schedule, and the contract documents; sending out bid requests and receiving bid submissions; approving subcontractors when they are hired; inspecting and approving the work; and more. There may also be a general contractor with responsibility for constructing the entire project, or the owner may contract directly with companies that would otherwise be subcontractors (e.g., electrical and mechanical subcontractors) without hiring a general contractor.

Either way, the construction contractors and subcontractors do not actually work for the construction manager; instead, they work either for the general contractor or directly for the owner. The owner does not pay the entire construction price to the construction manager; the construction manager receives only a fee, and the owner pays the construction contractors and subcontractors either directly or through the general contractor, if there is one. The only authority the construction manager has to do anything related the construction is in its capacity as the owner's agent.

In Hunt Construction Group, Inc. v. Garrett ("Hunt"), an employee of a subcontractor, Baker Construction Company, was injured and sued the construction manager, Hunt, claiming that Hunt was vicariously liable for Baker's actions and that Hunt negligently breached its own duty of care for job-site safety. In the next entry, we'll see how that case came out, and in the third entry we'll look at things a construction manager can do to minimize its exposure to liability for injuries to construction workers.

Continue reading "Construction Manager Liability: Part one of a three-part series" »