Construction Contract Interpretation

The Oregon Supreme Court will review two recent Court of Appeals decisions related to statutes of limitation and repose on construction projects. In the first case, Sunset Presbyterian Church v. Brockamp & Jaeger, Inc., the Oregon Supreme Court will address the following questions: (1) When the construction contract includes an accrual provision, is the

The Oregon Court of Appeals recently applied the so-called “economic loss rule” to a construction dispute (Marton v. Ater Construction Co., 256 Or App 554, __ P3d __ (2013)). Among other issues, the court decided whether the prime contractor’s negligence claim against its subcontractor was barred under the economic loss rule.

Under the

Can parties waive both the commencement and length of the statutory limitation periods for construction defect actions?  Yes, answered the Fourth Appellate District, by allowing the parties to contractually preclude the application of the “delayed discovery” rule that normally triggers the commencement of the limitation time period and affirming case law permitting the shortening of the 10-year latent limitation period to four years.  The court did hold, however, that such waiver and shortening is permitted where there are sophisticated parties, in a commercial context, and perhaps that the contract must even be highly negotiated (or at least such negotiation is available).

On June 3, 2013, in Brisbane Lodging, L.P. v. Webcor Builders, Inc. (Cal. Ct. App., June 3, 2013, No. A132555) 2013 WL 2404154, the appellate court reviewed the trial judge’s granting of summary judgment in favor of the general contractor (“Webcor”) on the grounds that a provision in the 1997 version of the AIA 201 (General Conditions to the prime agreement between Owner and Contractor) unambiguously barred all claims, contract and tort, brought more than four years after substantial completion of the project, rather than four years after the Owner discovered the alleged breach or defect and within the 10-year statute of repose.  The key language for both the trial court and the appellate court was found in provision 13.7:

“13.7 Commencement of Statutory Limitation Period

“13.7.1 As between the Owner and Contractor:

“.1 Before Substantial Completion. As to acts or failures to act occurring prior to the relevant date of Substantial Completion, any applicable statute of limitations shall commence to run and any alleged cause of action shall be deemed to have accrued in any and all events not later than such date of Substantial Completion ….” (AIA A201, Article (Article, bolding and capitalization omitted.)

The Washington Supreme Court—in Gandee v. LDL Freedom Enterprises, Inc., 176 Wn.2d 598 (2013)—recently examined the validity and enforceability of a contractual arbitration provision and found, under the circumstances, that the clause was “unconscionable” and therefore unenforceable. Although the case did not occur within a construction setting, it nevertheless presents important lessons to consider when drafting, negotiating or complying with mandatory arbitration provisions in construction agreements.  

In Gandee, a borrower, under a debt adjustment contract, brought suit against LDL Freedom Enterprises, Inc. (“Freedom”), seeking to recover damages based on alleged violations of the Washington Consumer Protection Act (the “CPA”) (RCW 19.86, et seq.) and the Debt Adjusting Act (RCW 18.28, et seq.). Id. at 601-02. Freedom moved to compel arbitration based on the following arbitration clause reflected in the parties’ agreement:

Arbitration. All disputes or claims between the parties related to this Agreement shall be submitted to binding arbitration in accordance with the rules of [the] American Arbitration Association within 30 days from the dispute date or claim. Any arbitration proceedings brought by Client shall take place in Orange County, California. Judgment upon the decision of the arbitrator may be entered into any court having jurisdiction thereof. The prevailing party in any action or proceeding related to this Agreement shall be entitled to recover reasonable legal fees and costs, including attorney’s fees which may be incurred.

Id. at 602 (brackets in original). In addition, the agreement contained a common “severability clause,” providing that “[i]f any of the above provisions are held to be invalid or unenforceable, the remaining provisions will not be affected.” Id

A reminder from the Idaho Supreme Court for parties to a construction contract:  the plain language of the parties’ contract governs the obligations between them in the absence of ambiguity.  In City of Meridian v. Petra, Inc., No. 39006, 2013 WL 1286014 (Idaho Apr. 1, 2013), the Idaho Supreme Court reviewed a construction dispute between the City of Meridian and its construction manager, Petra.  Not atypically, unfortunately, a project ballooned from $12.2 million in 2006 to over $21 million by October 2008 for a variety of reasons.  As the project progressed, Petra, pursuant to its contract with the City, notified the City of the proposed increased costs of construction and the City approved them, or often the City directed the changes itself.  During this same time, Petra notified the City of Petra’s right to an equitable adjustment to Petra’s fee based on the changing nature of the project. At that time, Petra agreed to wait until the final project value was determined before submitting the fee request. Thereafter, Petra managed the project for the City through occupancy.  Approximately six months prior to occupancy, Petra issued a change order requesting an equitable adjustment in the amount of 4.7% of the excess of the original base contract, which was the same percentage used for the original fee and a significant change order previously. The City denied the request.


  When mediation didn’t resolve the dispute, the City filed suit against Petra for declaratory relief and alleged breach of contract, among other claims.  Although the case itself addresses a number of related and interesting topics regarding evidence at trial, evidentiary issues relating to the claimed breach by Petra, and attorney fees, the foundational issue addressed by the court is the clarity of the contract and the allowance of the equitable adjustment.  On that score, the trial court found against the City on all but the lesser claims, and awarded Petra $595,896.17 in costs and $1,275,416.50 in attorney fees, in addition to its requested (as adjusted) fee of almost $325,000.  

The Nevada Supreme Court has answered a question that developers and contractors have been asking for years:  can the statutory limitation period for a construction defect action be shortened?  The court answered in the affirmative but held that there must be no statute to the contrary and that the reduced limitation period must be reasonable

Contributor:  Stephen P. Kelly

In Broom v. Morgan Stanley DW, Inc., the Washington State Supreme Court held that state statute of limitations did not apply to a contractual arbitration. The arbitrators of an investment-related dispute had dismissed certain claims because plaintiffs failed to bring them before the applicable statutes of limitations lapsed. Analyzing the Washington statute

Just when you thought it was safe to go back into the water, the Oregon Court of Appeals strikes again with another iteration of the “economic loss doctrine” which defines when parties can sue each other in negligence for construction defects. In Abraham v. Henry (September 2, 2009) the Court held that parties to a

Contractors and owners obtain builders risk policies to protect themselves from risks associated with construction. But a lack of care in understanding and negotiating the provision of the construction agreement governing the builders-risk policy and the policy itself may lead the parties to expose themselves to needless and significant liability.

What owners and general contractors