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Statutory duty of care – don’t get caught out by a poorly drafted claim.

The Supreme Court’s decision in The Owners – Strata Plan No. 87060 v Loulach Developments Pty Ltd (No.2) provides useful insights into the newly created statutory duty of care by section 37 of the Design and Building Practitioners Act 2020 (NSW) (Act).

Recap of the Duty of Care

The Act was enacted in 2020 and introduced significant legislative changes to the building industry. One such change was the creation of a statutory duty of care owed by any person who carries out construction work to exercise reasonable care to avoid economic loss caused by defects:

  • in or related to a building for which the work is done; and
  • arising from the construction work.

The Act states that this duty of care is owed to each owner of the land on which the construction is carried out. The duty of care extends to all subsequent owners of that land.

The duty of care operates retrospectively in that it applies to economic loss caused by a breach of duty of care if the loss first became apparent within the 10 years immediately before the commencement of the duty of care.

How to correctly plead a claim for a breach of the duty of care?

When the statutory duty of care was first enacted, there was uncertainty among the legal profession on how a claim for a breach of the statutory duty of care should be pleaded, and what elements and evidence will be required to successfully prove economic loss arising from a breach.

The Supreme Court in The Owners – Strata Plan No. 87060 v Loulach Developments Pty Ltd (No.2) has provided clarification on this matter.

Facts & Issues

In this case, the Owners alleged that there were a number of large defects in the works performed by the developer and builder, Loulach. The Owners claim was based on the alleged breaches of statutory warranties implied by the Home Building Act 1989 (NSW).

The Owners subsequently sought leave to amend their claim to also include a claim for an alleged breach of the statutory duty of care.

The Owners argued that the mere fact that there was a defect in the building, established that the defect was a result of the breach of the statutory duty of care, and had Loulach not been negligent, there wouldn’t be defects.[1]

Loulach opposed leave being granted to the Owners to plead its case in this way and contended that whilst there was no dispute that a duty of care existed, the proposed pleading did not properly articulate the breach of that duty.[2]

The Court agreed with Loulach and rejected the Owners’ position.[3]  The Court noted that the Owners’ argument posed difficulty as it was unclear what breach the Owners were alleging in relation to each item of the Scott Schedule.[4]

For instance, one of the defects in the Scott Schedule was identified as “Unit 5- Bathroom: Corrosion affecting the door jambs”. But what was the breach of duty alleged to have caused the corrosion? Was it:

  • installing the wrong PC item; or
  • installing the wrong lining; or
  • something else?

A similar difficulty was present in most of the 451 defects identified in the Scott Schedule.

Decision

The Court held that Act is designed to remove the hurdle for the Owners to establish that a duty of care is owed, and it is not intended to provide a shortcut manner in which a  breach of that duty might be established.[5]

In that sense, a party looking to claim a breach of the statutory duty, must also prove the other elements of a negligence claim in order to show a breach and then losses from that breach.

A claim for negligence, must satisfy the following elements:

  1. That a duty of care existed between the parties; and
  2. That the duty of care was breached; and 
  3. That the breach caused loss.

Section 37 of the Act simply answers the first element; however a party must also answer the balance of the elements in order to succeed on their claim for a breach of the statutory duty of care. There is no provision in the Act to suggest that a mere fact of a defect establishes breach.[6]

Furthermore, a claim for negligence also requires a party to identify the “risk of harm” and show that the person who owed the duty of care knew, or ought to have known of the risk of harm and failed to take precautions against a risk of harm that a reasonable person would have.

In this case, the Court was not satisfied that the Owners’ proposed pleading:

  • showed that the statutory duty of care was breached;
  • identified the specific risks that Loulach was required to manage; and
  • the precautions that should have been taken to manage those risks.

It was not sufficient for the Owners to simply assert a defect and allege that Loulach was required to take whatever precautions were needed to ensure that the defect not be present.

Therefore, the Court refused the Owners’ application for leave to amend their claim to include a claim for a breach of the statutory duty of care. It was also noted that the required degree of specificity may have been achieved if the Owner’s List Statement referred to the Scott Schedule and the Scott Schedule was revised to include further information regarding each defect, the relevant risk and what the Owners contend Loulach should have done in relation to that risk.[7]

Key Takeaways

The statutory duty of care established by the Act can provide an extremely useful remedy for parties such as the Owners, however, such a claim should be carefully drafted to avoid the risk of missing out because of a poorly drafted claim.

All three elements must be established for a party to succeed in a claim for a breach of statutory duty:

  • that a duty of care exists (this is automatically proven by existence of section 37 of the Act); and
  • that the duty was breached; and
  • that the breach caused harm (loss or damage).

We regularly assist parties which may find themselves either in the position of the Owners or Loulach. We can assist you with preparing your claim for a breach of the statutory duty of care, or help you defend a such a claim brought by an owner. For specialist and tailored advice, please contact a member of our team by phone on (02) 9030 7400 or by email at info@bradburylegal.com.au.

 

 

[1] [20] – [22] The Owners – Strata Plan No 87060 v Loulach Developments Pty Ltd (No 2) [2021] NSWSC 1068.

[2] [19] The Owners – Strata Plan No 87060 v Loulach Developments Pty Ltd (No 2) [2021] NSWSC 1068.

[3] [23] The Owners – Strata Plan No 87060 v Loulach Developments Pty Ltd (No 2) [2021] NSWSC 1068.

[4] [24] – [34] The Owners – Strata Plan No 87060 v Loulach Developments Pty Ltd (No 2) [2021] NSWSC 1068.

[5] [35] – [36] The Owners – Strata Plan No 87060 v Loulach Developments Pty Ltd (No 2) [2021] NSWSC 1068.

[6] [38] The Owners – Strata Plan No 87060 v Loulach Developments Pty Ltd (No 2) [2021] NSWSC 1068

[7] [44] The Owners – Strata Plan No 87060 v Loulach Developments Pty Ltd (No 2) [2021] NSWSC 1068.

Remember your umbrella! Drafting umbrella contracts for a rainy day.

This article focuses on risks for construction contractors and suppliers when agreeing to standing, purchase order or umbrella contracts and provides some tips on how to avoid or mitigate those risks.

“Standing”, “purchase order” or “umbrella” contracts are frequently used where:

  • the client engages, or intends to engage, a contractor or supplier across in multiple projects; or
  • where the quantity of works, goods or services or time when those works, goods or services are required is unclear or subject to change.

Umbrella contracts aim to settle a set of standard terms and conditions with which both parties are comfortable, with the variables such as quantities and time for performance set out in the purchase order later.

Purchase order contains additional adverse terms or terms that conflict with the umbrella contract

A risk in using umbrella contracts is that the client issues a purchase order which includes or appends an additional set of terms and conditions which are not agreeable to the contractor and/or conflict with the umbrella contract.  If the contractor commences performances in accordance with that purchase order or otherwise does not raise objection within a reasonable time:

  • a “battle of the forms” may occur, where which terms and conditions prevail becomes debatable; and/or
  • the client’s purchase order terms may be considered accepted due to the contractor’s performance of the works or services the subject of the purchase order[1].

Some ways that the risk can be avoided or mitigated include:

  1. Prevent inconsistency: Ensure that the umbrella contract contains a term which states that it will apply to the extent of any inconsistency with the purchase order.
  2. Settle form: Ensure that the umbrella contract contains a term which requires any purchase order issued to be in the form appended to the contract as an annexure (and ensuring that the purchase order issued aligns to that form).
  3. Minimise variables: Minimise the amount of variable information that will be subject to the purchase order. The parties should agree as many terms as possible via the umbrella agreement and leaving the purchase order less work to do.
  4. Contractor’s acceptance: Include a term in the umbrella contract that the purchase order will not become operative (i.e. an agreement on its terms reached) unless the contractor accepts the purchase order in writing. Then, do not accept the purchase order in writing unless the variable terms included in it (such as the time for delivery of goods) are achievable.
  5. Limits on liability: Ensure the umbrella agreement contains all necessary limits on liability – e.g. a cap on liquidated damages.

Creation of multiple contracts

It is not uncommon for an umbrella contract to contain a term to the effect that a separate contract is created upon issue (or acceptance) of each purchase order.  This is generally desirable when the umbrella contract is intended to operate as a standing agreed set of terms governing the parties’ relationship across multiple projects.

However, where such a term is included and multiple purchase orders are issued on the one project, such a term can:

  • create general difficulties in administering the contracts and enforcing rights under those contracts; and
  • impact the operation of security of payment legislation.

On the first issue, the parties would need to issue contractual notices with reference to various purchase orders.  For example, in the event of a delay event occurring which impacts multiple purchase orders a notice would need to be issued to the client with reference each separate purchase order, satisfying all relevant criteria under the umbrella agreement for such a notice.  By way of another example, a dispute between the parties may arise due to non-payment of various purchase orders or defects in goods or services supplied under various purchase orders that may need to be individually pursued using the relevant contractual dispute mechanism.

On the second issue, the security of payment legislation in NSW (and other States and Territories) does not permit a payment claim being served (and adjudication application being made) across multiple contracts.

If there is a clause in the umbrella contract stating that each purchase order will give rise to a new contract, the contractor must submit separate payment claims in relation to each purchase order and pursue separate adjudications on each payment claim.

This was highlighted in a case where Holcim pursued an adjudication application against Acciona for work on the Sydney Light Rail project where some 12,500 purchase orders had been issued.  The New South Wales Supreme Court determined that Holcim’s payment claim which encompassed several purchase orders was not a valid payment claim[2] and Holcim lost out on the benefit of an adjudication determination worth nearly $3M.  In this type of case, the issuing of purchase orders which created separate contracts resulted in commercial and administrative unworkability and prejudiced the subcontractor’s ability to pursue a large adjudication against the head contractor.

Whether or not the umbrella contract should contain a clause which provides that each purchase order issued will give rise to a new contract should be considered on a case-by-case basis.

[1] Both of these risks are discussed in our previous article on Samios Plumbing Pty Ltd v John R Keith (QLD) Pty Ltd [2019] QDC 237.

[2] Acciona v Holcim [2020] NSWSC 1330 at [40].