A construction lawsuit is a legal case whereby a property or homeowner brings a claim against a general contractor or similar party because of poor work quality or performance, property damage, or personal injury. Depending on state laws, these suits can be based on several legal theories, including negligence, breach of contract, and products liability. Some jurisdictions refer to these cases as construction defect claims or construction defect lawsuits.
If a plaintiff is successful in a construction lawsuit, the party may recover some (or all) of the following compensatory damages:
Claimants must file a construction defect lawsuit within the time set forth in their state’s applicable statute of limitations. Deadlines are usually within two to six years of the date of the plaintiff’s injury, but will depend on the:
- facts of the case, and
- legal theory that the plaintiff bases his/her claim on.
Our California personal injury attorneys will explain the following in this article:
- 1. What is a construction defect lawsuit?
- 2. What money damages are available to a plaintiff?
- 3. How long do people have to bring a construction lawsuit?
- 4. What’s the law in California?
1. What is a construction defect lawsuit?
Construction cases are brought by a plaintiff homeowner or real estate owner whereby they sue a defendant contractor for poor workmanship, property damage, or personal injury.
In addition to contractors, plaintiffs can bring a construction dispute or legal action against:
- a construction company,
- construction machine manufacturers,
- individual construction workers,
- government agencies (federal, state, or local),
- design professionals, and
- any other party or member of the construction industry that may share liability for poor construction.
Construction litigation is typically based on one of the following legal claims:
- vicarious liability,
- product defects,
- breach of contract, and
- wrongful death.
When plaintiffs file a construction lawsuit, they typically sue on the basis of one or more of these legal theories.
1.1. Negligence claim
The majority of construction lawsuits are based on negligence claims.
Plaintiffs must prove the following elements to succeed with these claims:
- the defendant contractor or other party owed the plaintiff a duty of care,
- the defendant breached that duty of care,
- the breach resulted in the plaintiff’s injuries, and
- these injuries caused money damages.1
For example, contractors have the duty to use materials at job sites that meet industry standards for construction projects. If they rely on substandard materials, that qualifies as a breach of their duty. If this breach then leads to property damage or physical injuries, victims have a contract defects case against the contractors based on a negligence claim.
1.2. Vicarious liability
A vicarious liability claim is where an employer is held liable for the acts of its employee(s).2
Example: George bought a custom home just outside of New York City. A few days after the purchase, the home’s roof collapses because of a mistake made by an employee from the company that built the home. Here, George can sue the construction company for its employee’s negligence. The company has vicarious liability over its workers.
Note that in the above example, George could file a construction lawsuit against the employee that worked on the home’s construction site. However, it is unlikely that the worker would have the resources to pay for all of the homeowner’s damages. A lawsuit against the employer is considered favorable, then, because the employer probably has more money to compensate the plaintiff.
1.3. Product defects
When construction is hampered by defective materials or machines, plaintiffs can bring a products liability lawsuit against the responsible parties. These potential defendants include the companies behind a
To succeed with these claims, plaintiffs have to prove that:
- a product was somehow defective,
- the plaintiff used the product in a way that it was meant to be used,
- the product caused the plaintiff’s injuries, and
- the injuries resulted in money damages.
Example: Lisa hired a painter to paint the trim around the outside of her home’s second story windows. The painter was using a heavy metal ladder.
For no apparent reason, one of the ladder’s legs snapped and the ladder slammed against an outdoor shed. The impact damaged the roof of the shed and several items inside it.
An investigation into the matter found that the ladder snapped because of a particular design defect that weakened the ladder’s structural integrity.
Here, Lisa could bring a products defect case against the manufacturer of the ladder to try and receive compensation for the property damage to her shed.
1.4. Breach of contract
Many construction projects are governed by construction contracts.
For example, an owner of a condominium and a contractor (with just a few years of experience) may enter into a contract whereby the contractor agrees to remodel the owner’s kitchen by a certain time and up to certain specifications.
If the general contractor fails to adhere to the terms of the contract, and this failure results in damages to the plaintiff, then the plaintiff can bring a breach of contract claim against the contractor.
In the above example, maybe the contractor breached the agreement because construction delays meant he/she couldn’t remodel the kitchen by the date specified in the contract.
Note that contract cases can also be based upon a party’s breach of some home-related warranty.
1.5. Wrongful death
When construction accidents cause someone to die, the victim’s family may be able to sue for wrongful death. A victim’s family sues the party responsible for causing the death.
Wrongful death damages may include:
- funeral and burial expenses,
- loss of financial support the victim would have provided,
- value of services the victim would have provided, and
- loss of companionship, support, and affection.
2. What money damages are available to a plaintiff?
Most state construction laws say that plaintiffs can receive compensation for the following if successful in their construction lawsuits:
- medical costs (including hospital bills, home health long-term care, medication, medical equipment and rehab/physical therapy),
- property damage,
- pain and suffering (including emotional distress),
- lost wages,
- loss of future income,
- loss of consortium, and
- injury to reputation.
Note that a plaintiff may receive these damages after a civil trial, settlement, or some form of dispute resolution (for example, mediation or arbitration).
Depending on the state in which a construction lawsuit is filed, a court may also award a plaintiff with punitive damages if it finds that the defendant acted with:
Punitive damages are meant to punish a defendant and are often much larger than compensatory damages.
Note that, depending on the facts of a case, a court may also award a plaintiff with attorney’s fees.
The above damage awards typically do not apply in wrongful death actions. Damages in those cases are limited to those awards listed in Section 1.5 above.
3. How long do people have to bring a construction lawsuit?
Plaintiffs must file a construction lawsuit within the time set forth in their state’s applicable statute of limitations.
A “statute of limitations” sets forth the time by which a plaintiff must file a legal claim. The plaintiff loses the right to file a claim if it is not filed before the statute of limitations runs.
The statutes of limitations applicable to these types of cases typically say that a plaintiff must file a claim within three to six years of the date of the injury, depending on the legal theory upon which the claim is based.
4. What’s the law in California?
California law generally follows the discussion set forth above.
A plaintiff can base a construction lawsuit upon the theories set forth in Section 1 above, including:
- vicarious liability,4
- product defects,5
- breach of contract,6 and
- wrongful death.7
In addition, if successful in their claim, they can recover any of the damage awards outlined in Section 2 above.
Per California’s statutes of limitations, a plaintiff must file a construction claim within:
- two years, if suing because of a personal injury,8
- three years, if suing because of property damage,9
- two years, if suing for a breach of an oral contract,10
- four years, if suing for a breach of a written contract,11 and
- two years, if suing on a wrongful death theory.12
For additional help…
For additional guidance or to discuss your case with one of our personal injury attorneys, we invite you to contact our law firm at the Shouse Law Group. Our attorneys provide both free consultations and legal advice you can trust.
- Black’s Law Dictionary, Sixth Edition – “Negligence.” See also Amoco Chemical Corp. v. Hill (1974) 318 A.2d 614.
- Black’s Law Dictionary, Sixth Edition – “Vicarious Liability.”
- See, for example, California Civil Jury Instructions (“CACI”) 40.
- See, for example, Perez v. Van Groningen & Sons, Inc. (1986) 41 Cal.3d 962.
- See, for example, CACI Series 1200 — Products Liability; and, Soule v. GM Corp. (1994) 8 Cal.4th 548.
- See, for example, California Code of Civil Procedure 3300.
- See, for example, California Code of Civil Procedure 377.60.
- California Code of Civil Procedure 335.1.
- California Code of Civil Procedure 338.
- California Code of Civil Procedure 339.
- California Code of Civil Procedure 337.
- California Code of Civil Procedure 335.1.