December 09, 2009

Court vacates judgment in favor of plaintiff homeowner


This action involves a variety of claims arising from the construction of a residence in Williamson County. A homeowner, James Laughlin, entered into a cost plus contract with Forrest Construction Company, LLC to construct a home for he and his wife. Prior to the home being completed, Forrest Construction stopped work, filed a lien on the residence, and thereafter filed a breach of contract action against Mr. Laughlin and an action to recover damages based on the doctrine of quantum meruit against Mrs. Laughlin. Forrest Construction claimed that Mr. Laughlin was in breach of the contract for failure to pay according to the contract. Mr. and Mrs. Laughlin filed a counter-claim for negligent construction, gross negligence, negligence per se, breach of contract, and violations of the Tennessee Consumer Protection Act.

The trial court found that Mr. Laughlin had materially breached the contract by failing to pay according to the terms of the contract, and awarded damages to Forrest Construction. Conversely, the trial court found for the Laughlins on their claim of negligent construction and awarded damages against Forrest Construction. Both parties appeal. Forrest Construction contends that the trial court erred in holding it liable for alleged defects because Mr. Laughlin committed the first material breach and failed to give Forrest Construction notice and the opportunity to cure the alleged defects. Mr. Laughlin contends the trial court erred in finding that he committed the first material breach. The Laughlins also contend the trial court erred in reducing the cost of the repairs to their residence and in failing to pierce the corporate veil.

We find that Forrest Construction was the first to materially breach the contract by submitting requests for draws that were not properly supported by records of its costs and expenses as required by the contract, including submitting draws which erroneously included charges for work done on its other projects, and by failing to complete construction of the home. We, therefore, reverse the trial court's determination that Mr. Laughlin committed the first material breach and hold that Forrest Construction was the first to materially breach the contract. We affirm the trial court's determination that the Laughlins were excused from the duty to give notice of the alleged defects and an opportunity to cure; thus, the Laughlins are entitled to recover damages due to the negligent construction by Forrest.

As for the trial court's substantial reduction of the damages requested by the Laughlins for the cost to repair the yet unrepaired defects to their home, we are unable to determine whether the trial court considered or overlooked $55,000 of the estimated cost to repair the defects; therefore, we remand this issue to afford the trial court the opportunity to either restate its previous ruling or to increase the award of damages, if it so determines, based on the evidence presently in the record. As for the issue of piercing the corporate veil, we remand that issue for further proceedings.

The full text of this opinion may be found on the TBA website at: