Construction Litigation

On June 10, I will be co-chairing and my colleague Colm Nelson will be a panelist during the annual mid-year WSBA Construction Law Section CLE.  This program is a full-day webinar presented by the WSBA in partnership with Stoel Rives and will cover construction law updates, public works issues, and judicial perspectives on litigation in

The nearly 60 cranes towering over Seattle’s skyline may be a sign of the building boom in the city, but they also could portend a flood of construction claims arising from the projects they help build. Despite the frequency of construction claims, many developers are not familiar with the dispute resolution methods available to them

Many times I hear from people who want to “save money” and serve as their own “owner-builder” under the exemption to the California Contractor’s Licensing law, which generally requires that any “construction” work over $500 to be performed by a licensed California contractor in the absence of an exemption.  (Bus. & Prof. Code section

It seems that almost weekly, and certainly monthly, I receive a call or inquiry from colleagues and/or prospective clients as to whether a license is really required if the prospective “contractor” is not actually building anything but is merely facilitating a “deal” or is hiring otherwise qualified and licensed contractors and trades. Virtually every time

The apartment business is booming right now. Unfortunately, construction defects persist as well, particularly in garden-style and wood-framed construction. Most developers are savvy enough to maintain a good insurance program, but many do not understand (until too late) that the policies they bought may not cover the risk of construction defects. 

As an owner-developer, neither your property insurance policy (including your builder’s risk policy) nor your general liability policy is likely to protect you from the cost of repairing defects to property you own. Most likely, your property policy has an exclusion for any damages caused by defects in construction or design. And your liability policy has exclusions for property damage to any property you currently “own, rent, or occupy.” (See exclusion J(1) below.) 

Even more surprising to some is another exclusion that prevents coverage for property damage to property that you “sell, give away or abandon” (known as the “alienated property exclusion”).  (See exclusion J(2) below) This means that for projects you develop, occupy (i.e., rent) and sell, you likely have no coverage during your occupancy of that project or after you sell  (whether to unit owners through a condo conversion or to another apartment owner). 

j.          Damage to Property

“Property damage” to:

(1)        Property you own, rent, or occupy, including any costs or expenses incurred by you, or any other person, organization or entity, for repair, replacement, enhancement, restoration or maintenance of such property for any reason, including prevention of injury to a person or damage to another’s property;

(2)        Premises you sell, give away or abandon, if the “property damage” arises out of any part of those premises;

Upon learning of this unfortunate situation, many developers ask: What good is the policy if it doesn’t cover me when I own the project and it doesn’t cover me after I sell it? Good question. The insurer’s response is that the policy only covers damage to other people’s property (like the project next door), not damage to your own property or the property you once occupied and sold.  Strangely, if you sell the project before you occupy it, coverage is more likely. 

Solutions?  There are steps you can take to minimize your risk: 

In a recent case, Donatelli v. D.R. Strong Consulting Engineers, Inc., 312 P.3d 620 (Wash. 2013), a sharply divided 5-4 opinion by the Washington Supreme Court provides further evidence that the line between Washington’s “economic loss” rule and “independent duty” doctrine remains quite blurred. 

The case arose out of an agreement between property owners, the Donatellis, and D.R. Strong Engineers, Inc. (“D.R. Strong”) for the development of the owners’ property into two short plats. Initially, D.R. Strong orally agreed to help with the county permitting process and to manage the project through recordation of the plats. According to the Donatellis, D.R. Strong told them the project would be completed in 1.5 years. After obtaining preliminary county approval for the project, which would last 60 months, D.R. Strong sent the Donatellis a written contract for engineering services. The contract detailed the engineering services and estimated fee, but was silent as to D.R. Strong’s project management role. The Donatellis alleged that D.R. Strong assumed extensive managerial responsibilities on the project and charged them four times the initial estimate. 


The county’s preliminary approval expired with the project incomplete. Before D.R. Strong could obtain a new preliminary approval, the Donatellis suffered financial hardship and the property was lost to foreclosure. The Donatellis then sued D.R. Strong, claiming over $1.5 million in damages and alleging breach of contract, Consumer Protection Act (“CPA”) violations, negligence, and negligent misrepresentation. The trial court granted summary judgment on the CPA claims, but denied summary judgment on the negligence claims, finding that “‘professional negligence claims can be stated even in the context of a contractual relationship.’” Id. at 622 (quoting trial court). The Court of Appeals affirmed the trial court’s ruling under the independent duty doctrine, based on the notion that engineers owe duties to their clients independent of any contractual relationship. See Donatelli v. D.R. Strong Consulting Eng’rs, Inc., 163 Wn. App. 436, 443, 261 P.3d 664 (2011). 


The issues for the Washington Supreme Court included whether the independent duty doctrine applied to preserve the owners’ claims for negligence (despite factual questions regarding the scope of D.R. Strong’s work) and negligent misrepresentation (predicated on D.R. Strong’s alleged misrepresentations made to induce the Donatellis to contract). The Supreme Court affirmed the Court of Appeals’ ruling and thus refined application of the independent duty doctrine to extend the reach of tort-based claims beyond any contractual agreement. 


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

On September 26 and 27, 2013, The Seminar Group will present its 18th Annual Oregon Construction Law seminar in Portland, Oregon. I will be speaking about Integrated Project Delivery, which is an emerging project delivery method emphasizing collaboration among project participants. Three of my partners also will be presenting: Guy Randles, program co-chair, will speak