Moretz Law Group - Community Associations and Business Lawyers

Monday, February 16, 2015

Supreme Court Loosens Up Construction Warranty Claims

The North Carolina Supreme Court does not often render decisions that directly affect HOAs, but on December 19, 2014, the Court issued an opinion in Christie v. Hartley Construction that may impact your HOA, and will certainly impact many consumers and construction contractors.

In 2004, the Christies, the plaintiffs in the case, were building their dream home and the builder suggested they purchase a stucco-like material called “SuperFlex” for the exterior. If properly maintained, the SuperFlex was promised to last decades, even in heavy sun, rain, salty air, and freezing conditions. The SuperFlex manufacturer even provided a lengthy written 20-year warranty for its product.

In spite of the promised durability of SuperFlex, a mere seven years later the SuperFlex began to flex, and then to crack and blister, causing moisture to penetrate the home. But no worries, the very specific 20-year warranty would protect the Christies, right? They sued in 2011 to enforce the warranty.

Not so, said the trial court. You see, North Carolina has a longstanding “statute of repose” for improvements to real estate (which includes most types of construction work on real estate). A statute of repose is like an outside statute of limitations. Whereas when a statute of limitations begins to run can depend on when the problem is discovered, a statute of repose says that a lawsuit cannot in any circumstances be filed later than a particular time period. In this case, the statute of repose for construction defects is and always has been six years.  (The ambitious or bored among you can can read it here - look at subsection (a)(5)(a).) This six-year statute of repose is intended to prevent builders and contractors from facing the possibility of an open-ended period of potential lawsuits.

No matter what, the trial court said, the statute of repose prevents a homeowner from suing to recover damages for improvements installed more than six years ago.  The 20-year warranty was worthless after six years.  On appeal, the North Carolina Court of Appeals agreed.  According to the court, this was obviously an improvement to real property and the statute of repose is clearly six years, so the homeowners had to abide by the statute of repose and the warranty was unenforceable, even though the written warranty was very clearly for 20 years. This had been the rule for many years and was not a difficult call for the court.

But the N.C. Supreme Court thankfully reversed the lower courts.  The Supreme Court held that a very important general rule of law is that parties can freely contract, and if the SuperFlex manufacturer wanted to provide a warranty beyond the statute of repose’s 6-year period, then it was free to do so. 

If a seller of improvements to real estate has such confidence in its product that it provides a lengthy written warranty, there is no reason for it later to be able to shield itself behind the statute of repose.  In unusually harsh language, the Court stated that allowing a seller to disavow its warranty would result in “a sham, useful only to beguile the unsuspecting”.  Accordingly, the 20-year warranty stands and a number of years of legal precedent were overruled, and rightly so in our view.

Although this decision may not impact too many HOAs or condominiums since most construction lives up to its promises, there could be situations where it comes into play.  We do sometimes see situations where an HOA purchases an improvement to its real estate, (e.g. to improve its clubhouse), only to find out down the road that the construction fails.  Imagine how miffed the board and the members are when they find out that the ironclad warranty they purchased along with the construction is as worthless as the shoddy construction.  Now these HOAs may have a remedy where before they had none. 

Please give me a call or drop me an email if our HOA law team can assist your HOA or management company with the compliance process, or if we can be of assistance in any other way. We appreciate your reading our HOA law blog and encourage you to share it with others who may be interested. Thank you!