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$1 per day LD’s in residential building contracts no longer rules out claims by owners for general damages for delay

Facts

In Cappello v Hammond & Simonds NSW Pty Ltd [2020] NSWSC 1021, Hammond & Simonds NSW Pty Ltd (Builder) entered into a standard form Housing Industry Association NSW Residential Building Contract for Works on a Cost Plus Basis (Contract) with Mr and Mrs Cappello (Owners) to renovate the ground floor of their house in Haberfield.

The LD’s for late completion was $1 per working day which was consistent with the default position under the Contract.

The works under the Contract were completed approximately 7 months late and the Builder made no requests for any extensions of time.  The Owners made various claims against the Builder, among them, was a claim for general damages for delay in the sum of $30,000.

Builder’s case

The Builder claimed that the Owners were only entitled to recover $1 per working day for delay in accordance with the LD clause in the Contract and that by making provision for LD’s in the Contract, the parties were taken to have intended to exclude a right for the Owners to also claim general damages for delay against the Builder.

Owners’ case

The Owners’ claimed that the LD clause did not provide the only remedy for the Builder’s delay because if it did, it would be void due to section 18G of the Home Building Act 1989 (NSW) (HBA) as it would have the effect of restricting the Owners’ rights in relation to the benefit of the warranty under section 18B(1)(d) of the HBA (that the work will be done with due diligence and within the time stipulated in the Contract).

What did the Supreme Court decide?

The Court found that:

  • the LD clause should not be interpreted as providing the only remedy for delay. Rather, by specifying the amount of LD’s so low at $1 per working day, instead the parties intended for the Owners to also have a right to claim general damages for delay (although in this case general damages were ultimately not awarded as the Owners did not meet the test for general damages that applies to breach of contract);
  • that an LD clause which limits a party to claiming nominal damages for a breach of a warranty restricts the rights of that person in respect of the warranty and is therefore void under section 18G of the HBA (which says that any agreement that restricts or removes the right of a person in respect of any of the statutory warranties is void); and
  • the outcome may have been different if the LD clause provided for the payment of a substantial amount in LD’s.

What does this mean for residential builders?

  • builders will be exposed in relation to existing contracts that stipulate $1 per working day (or a nominal amount for LD’s) as owners would be entitled to LD’s of $1 per working day plus general damages for delay by the builder;
  • any attempt to limit the builder’s liability for delay (including inserting a nominal amount for LD’s) will be void under section 18G of the HBA;
  • if builders wish to exclude general damages for delay in new contracts, they should insert a rate for LD’s that offers the owner a “substantial right” to compensation not just a nominal amount for breach of the statutory warranty (that the work will be done with due diligence and within the time stipulated in the contract); and
  • in order to limit the builder’s exposure for not only LD’s but also general damages for delay, builders should ensure that they claim all available EOT’s in relation to extending the contract period

Nominal liquidated damages may not keep general damages away

A Building Contract usually contains a provision for a cap on liquidated damages. In some contracts, particularly Master Builders and HIA contracts, the amount for liquidated damages is usually a default position (unless otherwise stated) at $1 a day for each day of delay from the date the builder was meant to reach completion under the Building Contract until the builder actually completes the works.

The amount set for liquidated damages is meant to represent a genuine pre-estimate of loss that would be suffered by the principal should the works be delayed. If the amount of liquidated damages is excessive, it may be argued that such a clause is a penalty and thus be held to be void.

In the recent case of Cappello v Hammond & Simonds NSW Pty Ltd [2020] NSWSC 1021, the Supreme Court of NSW considered whether a Building Contract which contained a provision for a nominal amount of liquidated damages in the amount of $1 per day excluded the homeowner from also claiming general damages for delay.

The contract was a HIA Costs Plus contract for works related to renovations to a dwelling. The homeowner alleged that the builder was approximately seven months late in completing the works. The Homeowner claimed that it was entitled to general damages, in addition to the claim for the amount of liquidated damages.

The general principle in law is that where parties agree on a rate for liquidated damages, it is taken to exclude claims for general damages.

Justice Ball stated [at paragraph 27]:

“Accepting that principle, the question remains whether by inserting a nominal amount as the amount payable by way of liquidated damages the parties intended, in effect, to exclude the operation of the liquidated damages clause or whether they intended to exclude a right to claim damages for delay altogether. The answer to that question does not depend on the application of any general principle but on the proper construction of the contract in question.” (Emphasis added)

It was also noted that Section 18B(1)(d) of the Home Building Act 1989 (NSW) implies into a residential Building Contract a warranty that the builder will complete the works within the time stipulated in the Building Contract. If the Building Contract seeks to limit a party from claiming damages in the form of nominal liquidated damages it has the effect of restricting that party’s rights in respect of the warranty and would be held to be void under Section 18G of the Home Building Act 1989 (NSW).

Justice Ball held that he preferred the interpretation that if only a nominal amount of liquidated damages is provided for under a Building Contract, it should not be interpreted as preventing a claim for general damages. Accordingly, the parties intend that general damages can be claimed rather than limiting it to the amount of the nominal amount of liquidated damages.

However, Justice Ball ultimately upheld in this case that the Home Owner was only entitled to nominal damages as the majority of the delays were due to the Homeowner’s requested variations to the works and did not appear to have suffered any additional loss.

In light of the above, it is important for liquidated damages to represent a genuine pre-estimate of loss, otherwise:

  1. it will either be held to be a penalty if it is too high and thus void; or
  2. if the amount of liquidated damages is only nominal, then it can be also be held to be either void or may not exclude general damages.

If you or someone you may know is in need of assistance or clarification regarding the above, please email us at info@bradburylegal.com.au or call (02) 9248 3450.