By Jeffrey A. Rembaum, Esq. / Published December 2021
If your community association has engaged the services of a contractor, engineer, architect, or other construction or design professional to perform a maintenance, repair, replacement, or capital improvement project, you know the process can be overwhelming. No matter the mad rush to execute the contract as soon as possible, when beginning such projects, no matter how big or small, the board needs to ensure the contract adequately protects the association. Even the smallest of projects can have unexpected, disastrous consequences. A few of the more common provisions which every board member should understand follow.
In today’s extremely litigious world, it is important that your association does what it can to protect itself against unforeseen claims that can arise out of the contractor’s performance of the work. For example, assume a crane fell on the building being repaired, the contractor accidentally damaged the elevator shaft, or worse still, a life is lost. An indemnity provision provides that the contractor will indemnify, defend, and hold harmless the association from and against claims arising out of or resulting from the performance of the work by the contractor or any of its employees, subcontractors, suppliers, etc.
Indemnification provisions can be tricky to understand. The general contractor, engineer, and design professionals (aka the architect) may seek to avoid and/or cap their overall liability. Even a small contract can have significant consequences if the negligence of the contractor causes significant damage or injury.
Rarely does the inclusion of a single word have disastrous consequences; however, a recent trend we have seen in many contracts is the contractor requiring the indemnity obligation to be limited only to damage caused by the contractor’s “sole” negligence. As events which cause loss or damage rarely occur by the “sole” actions of an individual, this provision significantly diminishes the contractor’s responsibility to indemnify the association. The association should look out for any indemnity provision which provides that the contractor is only responsible to indemnify for its “sole” negligence. Without getting into too much complexity, Florida is a “contributory negligence” state. This means each party is responsible to satisfy a judgment against them in proportion to their responsibility for the blame. So, if the contractor is found to be 33 percent responsible for an accident, then it pays 33 percent of the final judgment award. But, if the contract indemnity provision required sole negligence, the contractor would pay nothing at all because the accident was not “solely” caused by the contractor. Youch!
Another trend we see is the contractor limiting its liability to damage caused by its “gross negligence,” which by definition excludes “simple negligence.” As a brief explanation, simple negligence is when a person fails to take reasonable precautions that any prudent person would take in similar circumstances and their actions cause harm (for example, a driver who runs a stop sign and causes an accident). Gross negligence is extreme indifference or reckless disregard for the safety of others (for example, driving 100 mph in a parking lot and injuring a pedestrian). As any claims arising out of the work are likely to result from the contractor’s simple negligence, this heightened standard is not favorable to the association.
If the contractor is insistent on limiting its liability, the association may consider limiting the contractor’s indemnification obligation to the maximum payable under the contractor’s insurance policy. This way, the contractor is not on the hook for unlimited liability, but the association has some decent protection as claims can be covered up to the maximum amount payable under the insurance policy. However, in the event of a catastrophic loss or casualty event, even the amount payable under the insurance policy may not be enough to protect the association.
In addition to these limitations, “design professionals” have the added benefit of statutory authority to further limit their liability in a contract (they must have better lobbyists). Section 558.0035, Florida Statutes, provides a procedure by which a design professional can exclude any “individual liability” for damages resulting from negligence occurring within the course and scope of a professional services contract. In other words, the design professional will not be personally liable to the association for any negligence in its design if the contract includes a provision that excludes such personally liability. Section 558.002(7), Florida Statutes, defines a “design professional” as a person who is licensed in the state of Florida as an architect, landscape architect, engineer, surveyor, geologist, or a registered interior designer. Therefore, if your association is contracting with any of the foregoing design professionals, you will likely need to negotiate this provision.
You should also be aware that disputes over the enforceability of the indemnification clause do not automatically include prevailing party attorneys’ fees unless the indemnification provision specifically provides that, in the event of a dispute concerning the applicability of the indemnification, the prevailing party must be indemnified for their attorneys’ fees, costs, and expenses incurred in enforcing their right to be indemnified.
To ensure there are sufficient funds to satisfy an indemnity judgment in favor of the association, it is important that the association require the contractor to carry certain minimum insurance. Therefore, the contract should contain a clause which provides that the contractor will maintain such general liability insurance as will protect the contractor and the association from claims that may arise out of or result from the contractor’s operations under the contract documents in the amounts set out in the contract. Additionally, the association should ensure that the contractor obtains sufficient workers’ compensation coverage.
There are a couple of terms with which you should be familiar.
Thus, the contract should not only require that the contractor carry insurance but also provide that the contractor is obligated to provide a certificate of insurance evidencing the insurance coverage and containing an endorsement listing the association as an “additional insured.”
In addition to the insurance requirements for the contractor, your association may consider purchasing builder’s risk insurance for the project. Builder’s risk insurance is designed to protect the owner of a construction site from loss and damage. This should be further discussed with the association’s insurance agent.
During a major construction project, the association’s contractor will likely be working with several subcontractors to complete the work. The process for payments in such projects is set out in §713.13, Florida Statutes. (For a more detailed discussion on the construction payment process, you can read my prior article, “Construction Progress Payments: The Hidden Trap,” at rembaumsassociationroundup.com, originally published in the Florida Community Association Journal, February 2020 edition.)
By way of brief explanation, when the project commences, the association records a “Notice of Commencement” identifying the contractor and the legal description of where the work is being performed. The purpose of the Notice of Commencement is to inform all subcontractors and suppliers that if they intend to provide goods and/or services to the property, and if they want to have proper legal standing to record a lien against the property in the event they are not paid, the subcontractor and/or supplier must serve a “Notice to Owner” to the association. The Notice to Owner informs the association of all subcontractors working under the general contractor and all suppliers who provide suppliers and materials to the job site.
In exchange for payments to the general contractor, the general contractor provides the association with “partial payment affidavits” for each payment and a “final payment affidavit” upon conclusion of the work at hand. The subcontractors and suppliers provide the association “partial releases” for the payment received from the general contractor using the general contractor as the delivery conduit to deliver the partial release to the association. This method ensures that subcontractors and suppliers cannot later claim that they were not paid. However, in order to ensure this protection, it is important that the contract requires the contractor to provide the subcontractors’ and suppliers’ partial releases contemporaneously with the association’s progress payment. With the partial releases in hand, in the event the contractor does not pay the subcontractors and suppliers, the association is fully protected.
Some general contractors insist on providing the association with the partial releases from the subcontractors and suppliers one payment behind. This should be a red flag to your association because it means if the contractor fails to pay the subcontractors and suppliers after receiving payment from the association, the association will still have to pay the subcontractors and suppliers. In such event, the association will end up having to pay twice for all or part of the same work.
Another important consideration is the prevailing party attorneys’ fees provision of the contract. An attorneys’ fee provision generally provides that in the event of litigation to enforce the terms of the contract, the prevailing party is entitled to recover their attorneys’ fees. However, this provision must be carefully worded to ensure that your association will be able to recover its attorneys’ fees.
Most contracts provide that the association may terminate the contract for cause. The termination for cause provision should include examples of conduct by the contractor which would entitle the association to terminate the contract for cause. In addition to termination for cause, we recommend the inclusion of a “without cause” termination provision. This provision gives the association an out in the event the contractor is not working out, but the contractor’s conduct does not rise to the level which would allow dismissal for cause.
Generally, if an association terminated an agreement without good cause, and unless otherwise spelled out in the contract, the contractor would likely be entitled to approximately 15 to 22 percent of the contract price for its anticipated lost profit and overhead.
Another way the association can protect itself is by requiring the contractor to obtain “payment and performance bonds,” which are most often purchased together as a set. While doing so typically adds three to five percent to the total contract price, it is well worth it. In addition, if the contractor is not able to provide such a bond because the bonding companies will not bond the contractor, it is very telling because not every contractor is bondable.
A “performance bond” is a surety bond issued by a bonding company or bank to guarantee the satisfactory completion of the work by the contractor. It acts to protect the association in the event the contractor fails to complete its contractual obligations.
A “payment bond” guarantees the contractor will pay all laborers, material suppliers, and subcontractors engaged by the contractor for the work. In the event the association pays the contractor, but the contractor fails to pay the laborers, material suppliers, and/or subcontractors, the surety will step in to pay same.
Many contracts contain force majeure language which provides that the parties will not be responsible to the other if they are unable to fulfil the terms of the contract due to events beyond the control of the parties. Most often, a force majeure event adds delay to the targeted project completion date and avoids claims for breach of contract due to the delay. Such events may be acts of God, flood, fire, hurricanes, war, invasion, terrorist acts, government order or law, actions, embargoes, or blockades, etc. Of late, for reasons that need no explanation, pandemics are added to this list, too.
The above discussion is not meant to be all inclusive. There are so many other important provisions to consider, but space is limited. To ensure your association is protected, the association should always rely on its legal counsel to review the association’s contracts and make the necessary revisions to assist in the protection of the association.
Partner, Kaye Bender Rembaum
Attorney Jeffrey Rembaum has considerable experience representing countless community associations that include condominium, homeowner, commercial, and cooperative associations throughout Florida. He is a board certified specialist in condominium and planned development law and is a Florida Supreme Court circuit civil mediator. Every year since 2012, Mr. Rembaum has been inducted into the Florida Super Lawyers. He was twice awarded as a member of Florida Trend’s Legal Elite. Kaye Bender Rembaum, P.L., is devoted to the representation of community and commercial associations throughout Florida with offices in Palm Beach, Broward, and Hillsborough counties (and Miami-Dade by appointment.) For more information, visit kbrlegal.com.