The High Court of Australia has recently handed down a rare and significant judgment in the area of building and construction law.
A story that began with the construction of two townhouses in Victoria has led to the shaking of the foundations of the law around contract, repudiation and claiming a quantum meruit.
This decision affects the common situation in which a builder and a developer have a torn-up contract, and the builder is claiming payment for the work they started but were not able to finish.
We explore Mann v Paterson Constructions Pty Ltd  HCA 32 below and provide an overview of the key takeaways from this ruling in relation to quantum meruit.
The High Court also considered some interpretation issues in relation to the Victorian Domestic Building Contract Act 1995. These are not considered here.
Before analysing the case, it is useful to outline what is a claim for quantum meruit.
A claim for quantum meruit, is a claim for a fair and reasonable sum for services rendered, where a developer requests and receives a benefit from a builder.
This is not a claim in contract, which is a claim by Party A to be given that which Party B promised or agreed to give.
Where a contract is still alive between the parties, a claim for quantum meruit is not permitted. Some of the situations in which a claim in quantum meruit may be brought include:
(a) a contract never existed between the parties;
(b) statute prevents a claim in contract, because for example the agreement was for residential building work but it was not in writing; or
(c) a contract was in existence but was void or unenforceable.
Case (c) above was the subject of Mann v Paterson Constructions. In this case, the contract was terminated, so it no longer applied between the parties.
An issue that has been plaguing courts for some time is the following: in a claim for quantum meruit, what if a “fair and reasonable sum” for services performed is greater than what the parties agreed to under the contract? Should the claim be limited to what was agreed to by the parties, even if that agreement was ripped up?
It was an inevitable prize fight between contract and quantum meruit, with a purse of several hundred thousand dollars at stake.
On 4 March 2014, Peter and Angela Mann (the Manns) entered into a Masters Builders Association domestic building contract (Contract) with Paterson Constructions Pty Ltd (Paterson). Under the Contract, Paterson was to build two double-storey townhouses in Blackburn, Victoria. The Manns were to pay Paterson the amount of $970,000 (incl. GST). During the performance of the Contract, the Manns requested 42 variations without giving the required written notice. Paterson performed these variations.
On 16 April 2015, a little over one year into the project, the relationship between the parties had deteriorated, primarily over claims that variations had been completed and had to be paid.
The Manns through their solicitors wrote to Paterson, stating that they considered the contract to have been repudiated by Paterson. Repudiation occurs where a party demonstrates that it is unwilling or unable to perform important parts of the contract. The Manns “accepted” this repudiation and said that they terminated the Contract.
Paterson denied that its conduct had been repudiatory. After some correspondence, Paterson claimed that the Manns’ purported termination was in fact repudiation by the Manns. Paterson said that as a result, it terminated the Contract.
The case history: from VCAT to the High Court
Paterson commenced proceedings in the Victorian Civil and Administrative Tribunal, seeking damages.
Senior Member Walker of VCAT found that the Manns had wrongfully repudiated the contract. Paterson was awarded damages on a quantum meruit. Once rectification of defects was considered, damages were $660,526.41.
The remarkable aspect of the ruling was that the damages awarded to Patterson for quantum meruit were much higher than the contract price that Paterson would have been entitled to had the Contract remained alive. Senior Member Walker was acutely aware of this, but considered the damages to be a fair and reasonable sum.
The Manns appealed first to the Supreme Court of Victoria, however Cavanough J dismissed the appeal. The Manns then appealed to the Court of Appeal.
The Manns argued that the decision-makers had made an error. They argued that the error was that the decision-makers had decided that where a contract is terminated, it is as though it never existed and, as a result, they did not have to consider the costs actually incurred by the builder carrying out the work or the discrepancy between the amount awarded and the contract price.
The Court of Appeal also dismissed this appeal, ruling that only the High Court could overturn a principle that was said to be well-established. Not to be swayed, the Manns embarked on this challenged and took their case to the High Court.
The High Court judgment
All seven judges allowed the appeal. After two unsuccessful appeals, the third and last appeal by the Manns was a success.
The seven judges accepted that the law as currently interpreted had to be corrected.
Three judges refused to allow a claim on a quantum meruit where a contract between the parties had been terminated.
The four other judges accepted that a claim for quantum meruit could be made in limited circumstances: where work was commenced but not completed at the time of termination. However, any claim for quantum meruit was limited by the contract price that was agreed to by the parties.
Where the contract required the principal to pay only once for the “entire” work and labour performed by the contractor, and the contract is terminated before completion, then the contractor will be able to claim for all of the work it completed on a quantum meruit. This is because at the time of termination, the contractor had not yet accrued the contractual “right” to be paid – it had not completed all of the work.
However, the situation was different for the case of the Manns. Under their Contract, the principal was required to pay separate sums upon completion of certain stages of the work and labour. Paterson had fully completed some of these stages, while there was at least one stage which remained incomplete at the time of termination.
The majority decided that for completed stages, these could only be claimed under the contract, and damages would be assessed by reference to the contract price. It was only the incomplete stage that could be claimed on a quantum meruit.
The other important finding by the majority was that the amount to be claimed on a quantum meruit should not in the ordinary case exceed a fair value calculated in accordance with the contract price. This judgment left open the possibility of exceptions, including for example where constant breaches by a principal resulted in a huge cost overrun by the builder.
The Court was at pains to point out that, where a contract is still alive between the parties, parties cannot claim on a quantum meruit for a reasonable sum for the services rendered. The parties made an agreement that is still enforceable. That is all that courts will enforce.
What the decision did not resolve was the common case where a contract provides for progress payments, which are made on account only and are not final entitlements. This issue might be before the superior courts before long.
In some very complicated and differing judgments, the High Court has given a lot of clarity to an issue that has clouded the minds of lawyers, tribunal members and judges alike.
Builders and developers should be aware that even if there is no contract, where work is requested by developer and completed by a contractor, there will be a good case for a claim for damages.
Where a contract existed between parties at some point, this will be a significant factor in calculating the amount of damages, even where it is terminated.
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