By: Richard H. Glucksman, Esq. and Chelsea L. Zwart, Esq.
June 5, 2017
In Gillotti v. Stewart (April 26, 2017) 2017 WL 1488711, which was ordered to be published on May 18, 2017, the defendant grading subcontractor added soil over tree roots to level the driveway on the plaintiff homeowner’s sloped lot. The homeowner sued the grading subcontractor under the California Right to Repair Act (Civil Code §§ 895, et seq.) claiming that the subcontractor’s work damaged the trees.
After the jury found the subcontractor was not negligent, the trial court entered judgment in favor of the subcontractor. The homeowner appealed, arguing that the trial court improperly construed the Right to Repair Act as barring a common law negligence theory against the subcontractor and erred in failing to follow Liberty Mutual Insurance Co. v. Brookfield Crystal Cove LLC (2013) 219 Cal.App.4th 98. The Third District Court of Appeal disagreed and affirmed the trial court’s judgment in favor of the subcontractor.
This is the second time the Third District Court of Appeal has held that Liberty Mutual (discussed below) was wrongly decided and held that the Right to Repair Act is the exclusive remedy for construction defect claims. The decision follows its holding in Elliott Homes, Inc. v. Superior Court (Hicks) (2016) 6 Cal.App.5th 333, in which the Court of Appeal held that the Right to Repair Act’s pre-litigation procedures apply when homeowners plead construction defect claims based on common law causes of action, as opposed to violations of the building standards set forth in the Right to Repair Act. Elliott is currently on hold at the California Supreme Court, pending the decision in McMillin Albany, LLC v. Superior Court (2015) 239 Cal.App.4th 1132, wherein Liberty Mutual was rejected for the first time by the Fifth District. CGDRB continues to follow developments regarding the much anticipated McMillin decision closely, as well as all related matters.
The Right to Repair Act makes contractors and subcontractors not involved in home sales liable for construction defects only if the homeowner proves they negligently cause the violation in whole or part (Civil Code §§ 911(b), 936). As such, the trial court in Gillotti instructed the jury on negligence with respect to the grading subcontractor. The jury found that while the construction did violate some of the Right to Repair’s building standards alleged by the homeowner, the subcontractor was not negligent in anyway. After the jury verdict, the trial court found in favor of the grading subcontractor.
The homeowner moved for a judgment notwithstanding the verdict or a new trial on the grounds that the trial court improperly barred a common law negligence theory against the grading subcontractor. The trial court denied the motions on the grounds that “[t]he Right to Repair Act specifically provides that no other causes of action are allowed. See Civil Code § 943.” The trial court specifically noted that its decision conflicted with Liberty Mutual, in which the Fourth District Court of Appeal held that the Right to Repair Act does not eliminate common law rights and remedies where actual damage has occurred, stating that Liberty Mutual was wrongly decided and that the Liberty Mutual court was naïve in its assumptions regarding the legislative history of the Right to Repair Act.
In Gillotti, the Third District Court of Appeal stated that the Liberty Mutual court failed to analyze the language of Civil Code § 896, which “clearly and unequivocally expresses the legislative intent that the Act apply to all action seeking recovery of damages arising out of, or related to deficiencies in, residential construction, except as specifically set forth in the Act. The Act does not specifically except actions arising from actual damages. To the contrary, it authorizes recovery of damages, e.g., for ‘the reasonable cost of repairing and rectifying any damages resulting from the failure of the home to meet the standards….’ ([Civil Code] § 944).”
The Court also disagreed with Liberty Mutual’s view that because Civil Code §§ 931 and 943 acknowledge exceptions to the Right to Repair Act’s statutory remedies, the Act does not preclude common law claims for damages due to defects identified in the Act. The Court stated: “Neither list of exceptions, in section 943 or in section 931, includes common law causes of action such as negligence. If the Legislature had intended to make such a wide-ranging exception to the restrictive language of the first sentence of section 943, we would have expected it to do so expressly.”
Additionally, the Court of Appeal rejected the argument that Civil Code § 897 preserves a common law negligence claims for violation of standards not listed in Civil Code § 986. It explained that the section of Civil Code § 897, which provides, “The standards set forth in this chapter are intended to address every function or component of a structure,” expresses the legislative intent that the Right to Repair Act be all-encompassing. Anything inadvertently omitted is actionable under the Act if it causes damage. Any exceptions to the Act are made expressly through Civil Code §§ 931 and 934. The Court concluded in no uncertain terms that the Right to Repair Act precludes common law claims in cases for damages covered by the Act.
The homeowner further argued that she was not precluded from bringing a common law claim because a tree is not a “structure,” and therefore the alleged tree damage did not fall within the realm of the Right to Repair. The Court of Appeal also rejected this argument, holding that while the tree damage itself was not expressly covered, the act of adding soil to make the driveway level (which caused the damage) implicated the standards covered by the Right to Repair Act. The Court explained that since under the Act a “structure” includes “improvement located upon a lot or within a common area” (Civil Code § 895(a)), as the driveway was an improvement upon the lot, the claim was within the purview of the Right to Repair Act. As the soil, a component of the driveway, caused damage (to the trees), it was actionable under the Act.