Friday, May 22, 2020

Don’t Conspire to Build a Home…Wait…What?

In 1986, the Colorado General Assembly enacted the Pro Rata Liability Act, codified at C.R.S. § 13-21-111.5, which eliminated joint and several liability for defendants in favor of pro rata liability.[1] The statute was “designed to avoid holding defendants liable for an amount of compensatory damages reflecting more than their respective degrees of fault.”[2] However, the following year, the Colorado legislature carved out an exception to preserve joint liability for persons “who consciously conspire and deliberately pursue a common plan or design to commit a tortious act.”[3] Because of this conspiracy exception, plaintiffs try to circumvent the general rule against joint and several liability by arguing that construction professionals defending construction defect cases were acting in concert, as co-conspirators. Plaintiffs argue that if they can prove that two or more construction professionals consciously conspired and deliberately pursued a common plan or design, i.e., to build a home or residential community, and such a plan results in the commission of a tort, i.e., negligence, the defendants may be held jointly and severally liable for all of the damages awarded.

Since 1986, Colorado courts have construed the “conspiracy” provision in § 13-21-111.5(4), but some have disagreed as to what constitutes a conspiracy for purposes of imposing joint liability.

Civil Conspiracy

In Colorado, the elements of civil conspiracy are that: “(1) two or more persons; (2) come to a meeting of the minds; (3) on an object to be accomplished or a course of action to be followed; (4) and one or more overt unlawful acts are performed; (5) with damages as the proximate result thereof.”[4]

With respect to the fourth element, Colorado adheres to the view that “[t]he gist of [a civil conspiracy] action is not the conspiracy charged, but the tort working damage to the plaintiff.”[5] In Contract Maintenance Co. v. Local No. 105, the Colorado Supreme Court stated “the purpose of the conspiracy must involve an unlawful act or unlawful means.”[6]

In Pinon Sun Condo. Ass’n, Inc. v. Atain Specialty Ins. Co., a condominium association hired a public adjuster for the claims process and a construction company to conduct estimates and repairs after the condominiums sustained hail damage.[7] After a dispute over the amount of the claims paid, the association sued the insurers for breach of contract, among other claims.[8] The insurers counterclaimed, alleging fraud and civil conspiracy against the association, the public adjuster, and the construction company.[9] In its Order Granting in Part and Denying in Part Motions for Summary Judgment, the court granted summary judgment in favor of the association, public adjuster, and construction company on the fraud claim because the insurers failed to prove one of the elements of fraud.[10] Noting that the fourth element of a civil conspiracy requires an unlawful overt act, the court also granted summary judgment in favor of the association, public adjuster, and construction company on the civil conspiracy claim because the insurer failed to prove fraud, which was critical to showing an unlawful overt act.[11] Thus, although the association, public adjuster, and construction company acted in concert with one another, no conspiracy existed because no unlawful act or unlawful means in furtherance of a conspiracy existed.

Conspiracy in the Construction Context

However, in construction defect cases, the fourth element of civil conspiracy is not so clear.

In Resolution Trust Corp. v. Heiserman, the Colorado Supreme Court opined that “although the execution of a common plan or design may in many circumstances not result in wrongful conduct causing injury or damages,” . . . it may in some circumstances result in a tort such as negligence, causing injury or damages.[12] Thus, joint and several liability may be imposed on two or more persons pursuant to C.R.S. § 13-21-111.5(4), even when the conspiracy results in the tort of negligence.

Although the language of Heiserman appears to say that one may “conspire” to be negligent and thus be held jointly and severally liable, trial courts will not equate lawful contracting to do construction and design work with tortious conspiracy, absent some other evidence of tortious conduct. Indeed, Heiserman held that for joint and several liability to be applied, the trigger for liability had to be based on something other than a breach of contract.[13] The following cases help define the contours of this issue.

Rivergate Lofts Condo. Owners Ass’n v. Rivergate Lofts Partners, LLP: A tort must be reasonably foreseeable to result from the agreement.

On a partial summary judgment motion regarding joint and several liability in a construction defect case, La Plata County District Court Judge David Dickinson concluded the Colorado Supreme Court’s discussion in Heiserman regarding whether an agreement must include intent to commit a tort is dicta.[14] Judge Dickinson further concluded “as a result of the agreement, it must at a minimum be reasonably foreseeable that the agreement will result in the commission of tortious acts in furtherance thereof.” Id. at *7. Thus, due to a lack of evidence of agreement to violate the building code in the design-build agreement, Judge Dickinson found no conspiracy existed and granted partial summary judgment in favor of the construction company defendant. Id.

Villas at La Campanella Property Owners v. Hunnahs, LLC et al.: Benign cooperation does not establish joint liability.

In another La Plata County case, on a defendant’s motion for determination of a question of law regarding joint and several liability, Judge William Herringer determined that construction defect defendants would not be held jointly and severally liable because the plaintiff homeowners association was unable to establish facts to show the defendants agreed, in any way, to engage in tortious conduct.[15] More specifically, the judge acknowledged that the plaintiff presented factual evidence that the defendants worked together and coordinated closely on the construction project. However, the judge stated:

[That defendants worked together] is unsurprising and would be expected for a project of this nature. However, the mere fact that there were cooperative efforts and communication is insufficient for the imposition of joint liability. While the Plaintiff does not need to show that the defendants had the “specific intent” to commit a tortious act, the Plaintiff must produce some evidence of a “common plan or design” that results in the commission of a tort. Benign cooperation with a tortfeasor does not make a defendant jointly responsible for the tortfeasor’s misconduct. One who innocently, and carefully, does an act which happens to further the tortious purpose of another is not acting in concert with the other.”[16]

Polmer et al. v. Hi Point Home Builders LLC et al.: Lawful contracting to build a home is not in and of itself a C.R.S. § 13-21-111.5(4) conspiracy.

In Polmer v. Hi Point Home Builders, El Paso County District Court Judge William Bain also ruled on a motion to determine a question of law regarding joint and several liability in a construction defect case.[17] In this case, RMG engineers designed the grading and excavation plans for a new development, conducted soils testing, and provided the structural designs and observation and compliance services for construction of the homes.[18] Ruling against joint and several liability, Judge Bain found that the plaintiff provided insufficient evidence that RMG “conspired” with the other construction defendants to recommend a new design, or that the construction defendants conspired to market the home fraudulently or build it defectively, based merely on the fact the parties lawfully contracted with each other.[19]

Conclusion

Taken together with Heiserman, the cases are clear on this point: Parties cannot be said to conspire when they have merely engaged in lawful contracting.[20] However, each case presents “unique factual circumstances” and “detailed factual findings will be necessary” to make a determination of whether any given contractual relationship among construction professionals will rise to the level of conspiracy under C.R.S. § 13-21-111.5(4).[21]



[1] James W. Avery, The Pro Rata Liability Act and Imposition of Joint Liability Against Physicians, Colo. Law., 2/98, at 89.

[2] B.G.’s, Inc. v. Gross ex rel. Gross, 23 P.3d 691, 694 (Colo. 2001).

[3] C.R.S. § 13-21-111.5(4). This is also known as “actions in concert,” which is broader than civil conspiracy, not requiring express agreement or proof of intent to commit a tortious act. Resolution Tr. Corp. v. Heiserman, 898 P.2d 1049, 1056-57 (Colo. 1995).

[4] Loughridge v. Goodyear Tire & Rubber Co., 192 F. Supp. 2d 1175, 1186 (D. Colo. 2002).

[7] Pinon Sun Condo. Ass'n v. Atain Specialty Ins. Co., No. 17-cv-01595, 2019 WL 4747673, at *1 (D. Colo. Sept. 27, 2019).

[8] Id. at *2.

[9] Id.

[10] Id. at *4-6.

[11] Id. at *9.

[12] Resolution Tr. Corp. v. Heiserman, 898 P.2d 1049, 1055 (Colo. 1995).

[13] Heiserman, 898 P.2d at 1055 (“We conclude that the term ‘tortious act’ appearing in section 13–21–111.5(4) includes any conduct other than breach of contract that constitutes a civil wrong and causes injury or damages.”).

[14] Rivergate Lofts Condo. Owners Ass'n v. Rivergate Lofts Partners, LLP, No. 10CV19, Order on Motion for Partial Summary Judgment of Defendants Okland and Sill, at *6 (La Plata Ct. Dist. Ct. Oct. 4, 2011).

[15] Villas at La Campanella Property Owners v. Hunnahs, LLC et al., No. 13CV30099, Order Granting Defendant ABC Welding, Inc.’s Motion for Determination of a Question of Law Regarding Joint and Several Liability, (La Plata Ct. Dist. Ct. Aug. 21, 2015).

[16] Id. at *2-3 (internal citations removed & emphasis added).

[17] Polmer et al. v. Hi Point Home Builders LLC et al., No. 2013CV30763, Order: (Proposed) Order: re: Motion for Determination of a Question of Law Regarding Joint and Several Liability, (El Paso Ct. Dist. Ct. Oct. 15, 2015).

[18] Polmer et al. v. Hi Point Home Builders LLC et al., No. 2013CV30763, First Amended Complaint at ¶¶ 16-19, (El Paso Ct. Dist. Ct. Oct. 15, 2015).

[19] Polmer et al. v. Hi Point Home Builders LLC et al., No. 2013CV30763, Order: (Proposed) Order: re: Motion for Determination of a Question of Law Regarding Joint and Several Liability, at *2 (El Paso Ct. Dist. Ct. Oct. 15, 2015).

[20] See also Logixx Automation, Inc. v. Lawrence Michels Family Trust, 56 P.3d 1224, (Colo. App. 2002) (“[W]e conclude that there can be no conspiracy by two or more parties to a contract to breach that contract.”); In re Stanley, 2011 WL 10656536 (E.D. Cal. July 1, 2011) (“[A] party to a contract cannot be bootstrapped into a conspiracy tort.”). “The claim of civil conspiracy . . . requires proof of an unlawful intent.” Nelson v. Elway, 971 P.2d 245, 250 (Colo. App. 1999). Joint and several liability cannot be imposed “for doing in a proper manner that which they had a right to do . . . .” Id.

[21] Resolution Trust Corp. v. Heiserman, 898 P.2d 1049, 1057 (Colo. 1995).


For more information regarding joint and several liability in construction defect cases, you can reach Ben Volpe at (303)-987-7140 or by e-mail at volpe@hhmrlaw.com

Disclaimer

The information contained in this blog is provided for informational purposes only. It is not legal advice and should not be construed as providing legal advice on any subject matter.