Archives for posts with tag: construction

Premises Liability

Of prime importance to property owners and occupiers (tenants) is liability for damages to persons or property which occur on the owner’s or occupier’s property. Ownership or control of the premises upon which the damages occurred by itself will not create liability for the owner or occupier.  There also must exist a duty from the owner or occupier to the damaged person or property.  Also, control may be established through a showing of actual control or a right to control the area in which the damage occurred.  The control must relate to the activity that caused the injury complained of before a duty will exist.  Areas beyond the limits of an owner’s or occupier’s control will not establish such a duty.

Chapter 95 of the Texas Civil Practices & Remedies Code governs damage claims accruing on or after September 1, 1996, arising from negligent construction activities. A thorough discussion of that Chapter is well beyond the scope of this article.

In addition to control, an owner’s or occupier’s duty to a party will be determined by the legal status of that party. A party may be considered a trespasser, licensee or invitee.  A “trespasser” is someone who has no legal right to be on the property.  A “licensee” is a person who is present on the property with the permission of the owner or occupier, but for whom the owner or occupier has no business relationship.  A licensee is present on the property for his or her benefit only, and not that of the owner or occupier.  On the other hand, an “invitee” has a present business relationship with the owner or occupier and is present on the property for the mutual benefit of both parties.  A licensee or invitee may become a trespasser if his or her occupancy exceeds the scope of the rights granted to them.

Typically, owners and occupiers owe trespassers no duties other than to not injure them willfully, wantonly or through gross negligence. This has been the common law rule in Texas for many years, and has been codified in Section 75.007(b) of the Texas Civil Practices & Remedies Code.  For licensees, owners and occupiers owe the same duties that are owed to trespassers, and the additional duty to use ordinary care to make reasonably safe and adequately warn of dangerous conditions of which the owner or occupier is aware, but the licensee is not.  Actual instead of constructive knowledge of the dangerous condition by the owner or occupier is required.  Owners and occupiers are additionally responsible to invitees for their active negligence.  With respect to agricultural or recreational activities, Chapter 75 of the Texas Civil Practices & Remedies Code provides special protections to land owners engaged in such activities.

Texas courts have divided invitees into 2 categories: “public invitees” and “business visitors”. Public invitees are people who enter premises which are generally open to the public, such as governmental facilities and parks.  A business or merchant impliedly is “inviting” the public into its place of business.  Contractors, employees, and public servants are distinct categories of invitees.  By way of the invitation to the public, all entrants into those premises expect to be in a safe environment.  As such, owners and occupiers owe invitees the duty to exercise ordinary care to keep the premises reasonably safe, including the duty to inspect and discover latent defects, make safe any defects, or warn the invitees of the same.  For invitees, an owner or occupier is charged with any actual or constructive knowledge of the condition of the premises (i.e., conditions that the owner or occupier should have known of regardless of actual knowledge), and has a duty to make sure their invitees are reasonably safe from any such dangerous conditions or adequately warn the invitee of such conditions.

Even where a duty exists on an owner or occupier to provide a safe premises, liability will only occur where the breach of such duty proximately causes damages to the third party. Proximate cause is made up of two separate elements.  The first being “cause in fact”, which means that the negligent act or omission was a substantial reason that the injury occurred and without which, the injury would not have occurred.  The second element is “foreseeability”, which means that an ordinary and reasonably prudent person (which my first year contract law professor described as “Ward Cleaver”—Baby Boomers and Gen-Xers will understand) should have anticipated that such act or omission would result in such damage or injury.  These rules are general in nature, and several special situations have modified versions of these rules.  For example, premises liability relating to children, disabled persons, elevators and escalators, sporting events, and animals, each have modified rules relating to liability to the premises owner or occupier.

Under certain circumstances, an owner or occupier may be responsible for acts of third parties. The same rules as above apply for a third party act as for the owner’s or occupier’s direct negligence.  There must be a duty, a breach of that duty, and such breach proximately caused the injured party’s damages.  Most premises liability situations involving third parties are determined by proximate cause.  However, a third party’s act or omission may be a superseding act, breaking the chain of causation between the premises owner’s or occupier’s conduct.  A “superseding act” is an outside force that intervenes in a chain of events to cause an outcome that otherwise would not have occurred.  A superseding act can relieve an owner or occupier from liability relating to that act.

The criminal act of a third party is a common type of superseding act which may prevent the owner or occupier from becoming liable for an injury occurring on the premises. However, there are situations where an owner or occupier has been held responsible even where the criminal acts of a third party were involved.  In situations where such conduct is foreseeable and unreasonable, courts have imposed liability on the premises owner or occupier.

Employers have a duty to provide a safe workplace for its employees. Owners and occupiers have a duty to follow laws and ordinances which relate to safety of the premises, and the failure to follow such laws and ordinances may be considered to be per-se negligence.  Where an area or place has had so much criminal activity that has resulted in damage or injury to persons in and around such area, a premises owner or occupier may have a duty to protect its invitees against such dangers.  Note, however, that employers typically do not have a duty to warn an employee of conditions that are commonly known or already appreciated by the employee.  Of course, such duties will necessarily be affected by whether Worker’s Compensation insurance exists or not.

The principles underlying premises liability are in most instances purely fact driven. The analysis can be complicated, particularly when there may be more than one cause of the damage or injury or a superseding act.  Owners and occupiers of real property should always take advantage of liability insurance which will cover any negligence found against such owner or occupier, as well as provide the owner or occupier with a defense (attorney) against the prosecution of such claims.

Scott Alagood is board certified in Commercial and Residential Real Estate Law by the Texas Board of Legal Specialization and can be reached at alagood@dentonlaw.com or http://www.dentonlaw.com.

 

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Educate Yourself about Builder’s Risk Insurance

 

Almost every homeowner insures their home. A typical homeowner’s policy protects against fire, hail, theft, and other common perils. However, a typical homeowner’s policy covers completed structures. Therefore, if you plan to build or have built a custom home or other significant structure, you will need to make sure you have insurance that provides coverage during the construction process.

Builder’s risk insurance is a special type of property insurance for the construction process. Generally, builder’s risk insurance is coverage that protects a person’s or organization’s insurable interest in materials, fixtures and equipment being used in the construction or renovation of a building or structure should those items sustain physical loss or damage from a covered loss.” Usually written for a specific project, builders risks policies will cover “named perils” of loss caused by external causes (such as fire or hail), but also may cover property damage caused by acts of third parties (theft or vandalism). Most builders risk policies are written on an “all risk” basis, meaning that the policy will cover all risks of property damage unless the cause is specifically excluded. Such policies may be referred to as ARBR (all risk builders risk) or CAR (construction all risks policies). In addition, contractors will sometimes obtain builders risk “floater” policies that are not project specific, but that will cover, subject perhaps to lower limits than a project-specific builders risk policy, property damage at any project undertaken by the insured contractor.

Although coverage is often purchased by the custom builder or general contractor, property owners should purchase this coverage or contract with the builder or general contractor to be a named insured in the policy. Many times, proof of builder’s risk coverage is necessary to comply with local city, county, and state building codes. If you are the owner of the property and are commissioning new construction, you are the one most likely to suffer if construction is delayed because the builders risk policy was not in place. Further, some in the construction industry believe that it is the property owner who should have the builder’s risk policy because they have already paid for the improvements to their land, and if the builder receives the funds directly from a claim, theoretically, they could abscond with that benefit. Therefore, it is far safer for the property owner to obtain the builder’s risk policy, because they already own the building, even while it is under construction. If something happens to the under-construction project, then they should be the beneficiary and control how the funds are spent.

Although commonly written as an all risk policy, common exclusions significantly limit what “all” means. By far, the most significant limit on builder’s risk coverage is flawed workmanship. If your builders risk policy includes a faulty workmanship exclusion, you may need additional insurance coverage to protect you from this specific risk. Some insurance companies offer an endorsement to remove the common faulty workmanship exclusion. Every owner should inquire about this option and purchase this coverage if it is available. If such coverage is not available, then other options include performance bonds and/or well-drafted warranties in your construction contract. Always be aware, a contract is only as good as the person you contract with. If you have the world’s best warranty and you make it with a contractor who is broke and changes his business name once a year, it’s not worth the paper it is written on. One exception to this rule (at least as to the ability to perform) is insurance. Insurance is a highly regulated industry. Part of what that regulation makes certain of is that insurance companies have the funds available to pay the claims made on their policies. Especially in Texas, there is nothing that ensures a contractor can or will stand behind his construction warranty.

Other common exclusions from builder’s risk policies include earthquakes and floods. In Texas, earthquakes are extremely unlikely, but flooding is not. Fortunately, FEMA maintains and updates flood maps regularly used for identifying suitable construction sites. Generally, if you are building outside of the 100 year flood plain, flooding will not be an issue. In most cities and counties in Texas, you are required to obtain a construction permit, one of the conditions of which, is that you are not building in the 100 year flood plain. In lieu of or in addition to checking the FEMA maps yourself, your construction contract with your general contractor should include that they are required to obtain all necessary permits. If you are building in an unincorporated area outside of Denton County, I recommend you check with the FEMA map yourself.

Finally, be aware there are many soft costs that may not be covered by builder’s risk coverage. A soft cost is money you lose during the time it takes to move forward with your project after a covered loss. Soft costs may include additional insurance premiums, legal fees, and construction loan interest. Some policies will include soft costs, and some might not. If you discover that your builders risk insurance doesn’t cover soft costs, consult with your insurance agent about adding supplemental coverage.