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What is the amount of damages available to an owner for late completion of work on a residence that the owner does not intend to live in or rent?

In Leeda Projects Pty Ltd v Yun Zeng [2020] VSCA 192, the Victorian Court of Appeal (VSCA) was required to answer this question.

The case demonstrates that the court will look at the intention of the owner in ascribing a value, if any, to the use of the residence which was unable to be enjoyed as a result of a builder’s breach by late delivery of works.

Facts

In March 2011, Mrs Zeng and her husband purchased the penthouse of the Eureka Tower in Melbourne. On 24 September 2013, Mrs Zeng and Leeda Projects Pty Ltd (the builder) entered into a contract for fit out of the property as a private art gallery with a residential component consisting of two bedrooms with ensuites, a lounge, kitchen and laundry.

Mrs Zeng and her husband intended to use the property as a non-profit private art gallery and potentially spend some time residing in the property. They had access to several other Victorian premises to live in (when they were not travelling internationally), and their primary residence was in Shanghai. There was no intention to rent out the property.[1]

A dispute arose between the builder and Mrs Zeng. The builder made a claim to the Victorian Civil and Administrative Tribunal (VCAT) for progress payments and release of retention. Mrs Zeng counter-claimed for substantial damages on account of the delay in completing the works.

By the time the matter had reached the VSCA, it was not controversial that the builder had breached the contract as there was a delay period of 130 weeks between the date when the works should have been completed and the date when practical completion was achieved. Accordingly, Mrs Zeng was unable to occupy the apartment for those 130 weeks.

However, Mrs Zeng was not required to rent an alternative residence because she continued to live in Shanghai and had other Victorian residences available to her. Mrs Zeng did not lose:

  1. the opportunity to rent the property, as it was never intended to be a rental investment property; or
  2. takings from the art gallery, as it was intended to be a non-profit gallery.

Decision

The VCAT’s award of $100 nominal damages was not the correct measure, nor was the award of $357,500 plus interest by the trial judge for lost rental income at the rate of $2,750 per week.[2]

The VSCA[3] held that case authorities recognised the possibility of the loss of use of a property as being an available compensatory claim.[4] In ordinary cases, this might result in a financial loss to the owner of rent for an alternative residence.[5]

However, in this case, the proper award of damages to Mrs Zeng was $283,802.17 which Mrs Zeng spent on owners corporation charges, council rates and utilities during the 130 weeks.[6] These amounts were spent without benefit to her, but in respect of the property which the builder retained for its own use, being the completion of its works and were a reasonably foreseeable consequence of the breach of contract.[7]

Take Home Tip

If parties want to ensure certainty in the measure of damages payable by the builder in the event of delay, a mechanism for payment of a rate of liquidated damages for such a breach should be included in the contract. However, in doing so, parties must be mindful that a clause for liquidated damages may be challenged where the pre-estimated loss is found to be a penalty clause because it was not based on a genuine estimation of the loss that would result from the builder’s breach.[8]

In the absence of a liquidated damages clause, a builder faced with a claim should check whether the amount claimed is truly compensatory – i.e. does it put the owner in the position in which it would have been if the builder had not breached the obligation to complete on time?

[1] See [86] and [143].

[2] Per McLeish JA at [184].

[3] Comprised of Tate, Kaye and McLeish JJA. We note that McLeish JA gave the lead judgment on the ground dealt with in this case note, with Tate JA agreeing. Kaye JA agreed with the orders proposed by McLeish JA, yet His Honour gave a separate analysis of the authorities.

[4] Per McLeish JA at [174] and [175].

[5] Per McLeish JA at [179].

[6] Per Kaye J at [58] and McLeigh JA at [187].

[7] Per Kaye J at [57] and McLeish JA at [191].

[8] See Paciocco v Australia and New Zealand Banking Group Limited [2014] FCA 35.