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Florida’s Statute of Repose – Elimination of Stale Claims

January 7, 2022

Big changes may be on the horizon for Florida statute of repose for construction claims. Florida SB 2022-736 proposes to amend Fla. Stat. §95.11(3)(c) to eliminate the distinction between patent and latent claims and apply a uniform four year statute of repose to protect the construction industry from stale claims and prolong litigation many years after control of the project has been turned over by the developer or contractors.

SB 2022-736 proposes to eliminate an often litigated issue: whether a defect is patent or latent, and apply a uniform statute of repose for construction claims. Additionally, as discussed below, SB 2022-736 seeks to give teeth to the right to repair with the intention to help the parties settle and resolve construction defect claims without having to engage in drawn out litigation.

The Current State of Florida’s Statute of Repose

Florida’s statute of repose is intended to provide finality and certainty to builders and other construction professionals by ensuring that claims are brought in a timely manner, and they are not subject to liability indefinitely. Different jurisdictions have established differing statutes of repose, but the goal is finality. Ten year statutes of repose are considered on the longer end of the spectrum, as defects in the as-built conditions would assuredly manifest well before that time. Distinguishing between true construction defects and maintenance/wear and tear issues is almost always a battle and more so as the building ages.

In Florida, a claim based on the design, planning, or construction of an improvement to real property is subject to a four year statute of repose starting from when the owner taking possession, the issuance of a certificate of occupancy, abandonment of the project if not complete or when the contract is completed or terminated, whichever is later. However, if the claim involves a “latent defect”, then the four year statute of repose operates as a statute of limitations and the claim is instead subject to a ten year statute of repose starting from when the owner taking possession, the issuance of a certificate of occupancy, abandonment of the project if not complete or when the contract is completed or terminated, whichever is later.

Although not defined by statute, Florida Courts have held that a latent defect is a hidden or concealed defect which is not discoverable by reasonable and customary inspection, and the owner has no knowledge. Significantly, the test for patency is not whether the condition was observable by the owner. Rather, the test for patency is whether the “defective nature” was apparent to the owner. This test results in difficult jury questions regarding when an owner knew or should have known of a defect and whether such a defect would be apparent to the owner. Additionally, the ten year exception for latent defects allow owners to conflate legitimate construction issues with normal wear and tear and lack of maintenance. As a result, developers and contractors are often forced to litigate the old claims and are denied the finality that the Legislature intended to provide when the statute of repose was first adopted.

What is the Difference Between a Statute of Limitations and a Statute of Repose

Both a statute of limitation and a statute of repose bar lawsuits from being filed after a certain amount of time has passed. However, the major difference in the two come in the way they are triggered. The more common statute of limitations typically being to run when the injury occurs and could be subject to the discovery rule if the injury is hidden. In contrast, a statute of repose is triggered by specific events and can being to run even before an injury occurs. For example, in a personal injury case, a person may be injured by a latent defect 11 years after the completion of the building; however, while the person would ordinarily have 4 years to bring a personal injury claim under the statute of limitations, the claim, to the extent it relates to the original construction would be barred by the statute of repose under current Florida law.

New Legislation Pending in the Florida Legislature Would Eliminate the Ten Year Exception to the Current Statue of Repose

SB 2022-736 proposes to amend Fla. Stat. § 95.11(3)(c) by eliminating the current latent defect exception to the statute of repose for construction defect claims. If the amendment is adopted, a four year statute of repose will apply to all construction claims regardless of whether the defect is patent or latent. This will ensure that legitimate construction claims are brought in a timely manner, provide finality to the construction industry and reduce the amount of claims related to maintenance and wear and tear.

New Provision for the Rejection of Settlement Offers

The proposed bill requires claimants who reject a valid settlement offer to do so in writing and include the reasons for rejecting the offer. The claimant must include details on any portions of their claim that they feel were not addressed in the settlement offer and must also identify any portions they find unreasonable and clearly state the reasons why the offer is unreasonable from their perspective.

After a written notice of rejection of the settlement offer, the opposing party must be given 15 days to propose a supplemental offer to repair and/or submit payment to cover claimed damages or losses. If the claimant also rejects the supplemental offer, that should also be in writing and include detailed reasons as to why the supplemental offer is not sufficient to cover the claim. Any action filed without following these procedures may be stayed by the court upon a timely motion by the opposing party.

Limitation of Attorney Fees

If a claimant chooses to reject a settlement offer or supplemental settlement offer to remedy a construction defect, under the new law this rejection will limit the claimant’s ability to recover attorney fees from the defendant. In order to overcome this limitation, the claimant will need to show by a preponderance of the evidence (more probable than not that the claim is true) that at the time of the offer, the repairs and payment offered were not sufficient to remedy the construction defects. Attorney fees stemming from a contract between the parties is not impacted by this section of the law.

Acceptance by Claimant of a Supplemental Offer

Under the provisions of the proposed law, claimants who accept the initial or supplemental offer by the contractor or other construction professional will be required to enter into a contract to define the terms by which the construction defect will be remedied. This contract must be in place within 90 days after the acceptance of the offer. In addition, the offeror or insurer must pay the contractor for the work directly and such repairs must be made within 12 months of entry into the contract between the parties, unless the parties agree otherwise.

Use of Experts

Once an action has been filed, the Court is required to appoint a neutral expert to inspect and opine on the validity or extent of the construction defect claimed. However, an expert will not be appointed if all of the parties object, or if the Court finds that the appointment costs will exceed any possible benefits to the successful determination of the case. Any experts appointed by the Court must communicate and coordinate the inspection of the construction defect with all parties as directed by the court. The expert must submit a written report to the Court within 15 days after the inspection defect, unless otherwise indicated by the court. The following is required of the expert and the parties:

  • A description of how the expert conducted the examination of the alleged defect.
  • Identification of the persons present at the site while the expert conducted the inspection.
  • Include photographs or other documentation of the alleged defect including any relevant test results.
  • State whether the damages claimed by a claimant are more likely than not the result of a construction defect, another identified cause, or a construction defect and another identified cause.
  • Address other matters related to the alleged defect as directed by the court.
  • If the expert concludes that the damages are wholly or partially the result of a construction defect, the report must state the actions necessary to repair the defect and any repairs related to the defect, provide an estimate of the reasonable cost of repairs, and state the anticipated time needed for the repairs under the current market conditions for construction services and materials.

The parties are responsible for compensating the expert, but the prevailing party is entitled to reimbursement from the non-prevailing party. The expert appointed by the Court may not be employed to repair the alleged defect or recommend contractors to repair the defect in order to prevent a conflict of interest.

Duty to Repair the Defect

Fla. Stat. §558.0046, imposes a duty to repair the construction defect once the claimant receives compensation to complete the repair. If the claimant fails to use the funds to fully repair the defect, the claimant will be liable to any purchaser of the property for any damages that occur due to the failure to completely repair the defect and not disclosing such defect.

Required Notice to Mortgagee or Assignee

Under the new statute, claimants will be required to provide notice to a mortgagee or assignee if a notice of claim alleging a construction defect is made with respect to real property to which a mortgagee or an assignee has a security interest. The claimant must, within 30 days after service of the notice of claim on the contractor, subcontractor, supplier, or design professional, provide the mortgagee or assignee with a copy of the notice of claim by certified mail, return receipt requested.

If repairs relating to the defect are completed after notice to a mortgagee or assignee is provided, or if any settlement, partial settlement, arbitration award, or judgment is obtained by the claimant, the claimant must provide an additional notice to the mortgagee or assignee, by certified mail, return receipt requested, within 60 days after completion of the repairs or any settlement, partial settlement, arbitration award, or judgement, whichever is later.

Noteworthy Takeaways

  • This law will effectively eliminate the current 10 year latent defect exception to the statute of repose.
  • It will remove the latent construction defect exception and require all construction defect claims to be raised within the standard four (4) year statute of repose that is in place for all other construction defect claims.
  • This reduced time to initiate claims will limit stale claims and reduce the amount of claims related to maintenance and wear and tear.
  • This elimination of the latent defect exception should give more strength to offers to repair alleged defects and reduce the number of claims engaged in drawn out litigation.
  • Plaintiff’s are likely to benefit from these changes as repairs will occur quicker and prevent additional damage while the case is in pending litigation.
  • The law will allow for the contractor to make an offer to repair the defects and if the Claimant rejects the offer, the contractor is permitted to make a supplemental offer.
  • If the claimant rejects the offers, they must explain in detail why they are rejecting the offer and list exact reasons including the fact that additional remedies were required and not satisfied by the offer to repair.
  • If a claimant rejects a supplemental offer they may not be able to collect attorney fees, unless claimant can prove additional repairs were necessary beyond the settlement offer.
  • If a settlement offer is accepted the claimant MUST enter into a contract with the correct, licensed contractors to remedy the defects and the party making the offer must make payments directly to the contractor, and repairs must be completed within 12 months of the agreement.
  • The court will now be required to appoint an expert to inspect the alleged defect and report back to the court as well as the parties.
  • The Plaintiff must provide notice of the defects claimed or repaired, to the mortgagee or assignee.

The previously discussed changes to the construction defect law appear on the surface to be designed to reduce the backlog of claims in the courts and encourage the parties to resolve the claims with repairs rather than litigation. Defect claims must be made in a tighter time frame and therefore, claims that have historically been based on maintenance or normal wear and tear will likely be reduced and the court’s time will be focused on cases where significant issues are at dispute.

The changes also put statutory requirements on homeowners who make claims. Homeowners will now be required to give actual reasoning as to why they are rejecting settlement offers from the contractor with accompanying proof; and if they do actually accept an offer to repair, they are required by statute to contract with an appropriate contractor for the repairs, and the party paying for the repairs pays that contractor directly instead of sending the settlement money to the homeowner.

These changes seem to be designed to strengthen the prelitigation 558 Notice of Claim process and the opportunity to repair, by giving more teeth to offers to repair made by developers and contractors and encourage plaintiffs to resolve claims outside of formal litigation. The removal of the latent defect exception is likely to reduce the large volume of claims that stem from normal wear and tear, along with lack of maintenance.

The attorneys at WSHB stand ready to assist our clients as they navigate these potential new changes to existing law. We will monitor developments on this front and keep our clients updated as to what these changes mean for their businesses.

 

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