December 18, 2007

Fraudulent statements made by home builder to first purchaser suspend 4-year SOR, but do not constitute common law fraud against remote purchasers

ROBERT JENKINS ET AL. v. CHASE BROWN ET AL. (Tenn.Ct.App. December 17, 2007).

This appeal involves a dispute regarding the liability for the structural defects in a four-year-old house in a Mt. Juliet subdivision. Shortly after purchasing the house from its original owners, the property owners discovered that the house had been constructed on improperly compacted fill and other debris. When additional structural problems manifested themselves, the property owners filed suit in the Chancery Court for Wilson County seeking compensatory and punitive damages against the contractor who built the house and his wife, the original owners, the original owners' real estate agent and broker, their own real estate agent and broker, and their home inspector.

Following an eight-day trial, the jury determined that the contractor and the original owners had engaged in intentional and reckless misrepresentation by concealing the house's structural problems. The jury also determined that both real estate agents and the developer of the subdivision were at fault. The jury awarded the property owners $58,720.80 in compensatory damages to be apportioned among the parties at fault. The jury also awarded the property owners $20,000 in punitive damages against one of the original owners and $50,000 in punitive damages against the contractor. The trial court reduced the punitive damage award against the original property owner to $14,000, and granted a judgment notwithstanding the verdict for the two real estate agents with regard to the property owners' Tennessee Consumer Protection Act claims.

On this appeal, the property owners take issue with the dismissal of their claims against the real estate agents and their brokers based on their use of an outdated and incomplete real property disclosure form. The contractor also takes issue with the judgments awarded against him for compensatory and punitive damages. We have determined that the trial court did not err by dismissing the property owners' claims against the real estate agents and their brokers based on the use of the incomplete and outdated disclosure form. We have also concluded that the property owners presented insufficient evidence to establish their common-law fraud claim against the contractor who built the house. Accordingly, we reverse the portion of the judgment requiring the contractor to pay compensatory and punitive damages.

Opinion may be found at:

"Based on our review of the record, we have concluded that it contains sufficient material evidence to support the jury’s conclusion that Mr. Wright had committed 'fraud' with regard to his dealings with the Browns by concealing the extent to which fill material had been used on the lot and by asserting that the house had been constructed on 'original dirt.' This conduct amounts to 'fraud ... in performing the ... construction of' the house for the purpose of Tenn. Code Ann. § 28-3-205(b). Therefore, Mr. Wright was not entitled to assert the four-year statute of repose in Tenn. Code Ann. § 28-3-202 in this case." Id.

"It is important to note at the outset of this discussion that the 'fraud' that is relevant with regard to the application of Tenn. Code Ann. § 28-3-205(b) is different from the Jenkinses’ commonlaw fraud claim. In the context of Tenn. Code Ann. § 28-3-205(b), the fraud necessary to prevent a defendant from invoking the four-year statute of repose in Tenn. Code Ann. § 28-3-202 need not be made directly to the plaintiff. The same is not necessarily the case with regard to common-law fraud claims." Id.

"The Jenkinses concede that they never talked with Mr. Wright about the house. Likewise, there is no evidence in the record that the Jenkinses were privy to any of the misrepresentations that Mr. Wright may have made to the Browns regarding the structural stability of the house. Accordingly, there is no evidence upon which the jury could have concluded that the Jenkinses relied on any misrepresentations that Mr. Wright may have made. There is likewise no evidence that when Mr. Wright represented to Mr. Brown that the house was constructed on “original dirt” that he intended or understood that anyone other than Mr. Brown would rely on the statement. Thus, in light of the essentially undisputed evidence that Mr. Wright had no role in the Browns sale of the house to the Jenkinses, the Jenkinses cannot recover from Mr. Wright for fraud." Id.