In Swift v. Eleven Eleven Architecture Inc., the Alberta Court of Appeal recently considered the impact and scope of a limitation of liability clause in a consultant’s contract between an owner and the architects on a building project. The court arrived at three important conclusions.

First, the clause did not apply to and did not bar a claim by a co-owner of the property who had not signed the consultant’s contract.

Second, the clause did not apply to a negligent misrepresentation made by the sub-consultant engineers during the project.

Third, the architects could recover the full amount of the settlement payment made by it to the owners from the engineers on restitutionary principles.

This decision has important ramifications for architect and engineers, and indeed for anyone who is a party to a building contract containing a limitation of liability clauses.

Background

The owner Mr. Swift hired the architects to design a home on property owned by Mr. Swift and his wife, Mrs. Swift. The architects hired engineers as sub-consultants to design the structure of the home. The consultant contract dated April 29, 2005 was only between Mr. Swift and the architects, and Mrs. Swift was not a party to it. The consultant contract contained the following limitation of liability clause:

“3.8.1 With respect to the provision of services by the Designer to the Client under this Agreement, the Client agrees that any and all claims which the Client has or hereafter may have against the Designer which arise solely and directly out of the Designer’s duties and responsibilities pursuant to this Agreement (hereinafter referred to in this Article 3 as “claims”), whether such claims sound in contract or in tort, shall be limited to the amount of $500,000.00.”

The engineers designed the home to a Part 9 standard, not the higher Part 4 standard for seismic purposes, under the British Columbia building code. The contractor became concerned about the structural design of the building from a seismic standpoint and retained an engineer to review the matter. Ultimately the municipality stated to the parties that the building had to be designed to a class 4 standard. The engineers then advised that the building’s design met the Part 4 standard, when in fact it did not. The building of the home was delayed and further costs were incurred due to the structural mis-design. As a result, the owner incurred $1.9 million extra expenses and sued the architects and engineers. Before trial, the architects settled the owners’ claim against them for $1 million. Two claims proceeded to trial: the owners’ claim against the engineers; and the architects’ claim against the engineers to recover the $1 million the architects had paid to the owners.

Trial decision

The trial judge held that the limitation clause applied to the claim of both Mr. and Mrs. Swift as Mr. Swift had acted as Mrs. Swift’s agent in signing the consultant’s contract and that the limitation clause applied to all the Swift’s claims including the negligent misrepresentation claim against the engineers. The trial judge also decided that, by reason of the limitation clause the architect was only entitled to indemnity from the engineers for $500,000 of the $1 million they had paid the Swifts in settlement before trial.

Appeal Decision

Was Mrs. Swift bound by the limitation clause?

The Alberta Court of Appeal held that there was no evidence that Mr Swift had acted as agent for Mrs. Swift in signing the consultant’s contract and that she was not bound by the consultant’s contract and by the limitation of liability clause in it. The court noted that “Mr. Swift testified that he was signing the Agreement on his own behalf only. Ms. Swift testified that Mr. Swift did not have authority to sign an agreement or the Agreement on her behalf. The Architects testified that they did not believe that Mr. Swift was executing the Agreement on Ms. Swift’s behalf. This evidence, together with the language of the Agreement defining only Mr. Swift as the “client”, ought to have ended the discussion on actual authority.”

Moreover, no evidence ought to have been admitted to try to prove that Mrs. Swift was an undisclosed principal to the contract through Mr. Swift’s agency, for two reasons:

First, the consultant’s contract unambiguously showed that Mr. Swift was the only client.

Second, in order for an undisclosed principal to be liable on a contract, the surrounding circumstances must permit the possibility of identifying the undisclosed principal, by showing that the agent was not acting as the real and only principal. That was simply not the case here.

Scope of the limitation clause

The Alberta Court of Appeal agreed with the trial judge that the limitation clause applied to and protected the architects and those which it retained, including the engineers. However, it found that there was a good argument that the clause applied to each wrongful act, so that if there were multiple wrongful acts the client was entitled to multiple times the limit of damages. In light of its decision about the negligent misrepresentation, it held that it did not need to decide this issue.

Negligent Misrepresentation

The Alberta Court of Appeal held that the negligent misrepresentations made by the engineers during the project, that the structural design satisfied the Part 4 standard, was not covered by the limitation clause in the consultant’s agreement.  Even if the tort claims contemplated by the original consulting contract were limited by the limitation clause, the negligent misrepresentation claim arising from the conduct of the engineers during the project was not so limited. That conduct occurred in September 2006, long after the consultant contract had been made in April 2005. In response to inquiries from the architects, the municipality and another engineer, the engineers promised to bring the structural engineering of the building up to the Part 4 standard, and then confirmed that they had done so when they had not. That representation caused a delay in starting the remedial work and as construction progressed, it became more expensive to undertake the required work. The court held that “it would be unreasonable to conclude that such negligent misrepresentation was contemplated as being something that “arises solely and directly” out of [the architect’s] duties and responsibilities. This is particularly so given that the structural defects presented a real and substantial danger to its occupants.”

Accordingly, Mr. Swift was entitled to recover the full $1.9 million loss from the engineers. Since he had recovered $1 million from the architects, he was entitled to the further $900,000 from the engineers.

Indemnity

The Alberta Court of Appeal held that the architects were entitled to a full indemnity from the engineers based, not on contract or contributory negligence principles, but upon restitutionary principles. The architects had settled the Swifts’ claim against them for $1 million, and the courts favoured settlements. Since the architects’ liability only arose due to the engineers’ fault, the engineers should indemnify the architects for that full amount.

Comments

There are many issues and questions arising from this decision which could be analyzed. But for the moment, the following advice appears to arise from the decision:

  1. A consultant or contractor which is proposing to enter into an agreement with an owner will want to ensure that it contracts with all the owners and that the owner represents that there are no other owners. In the alternative, the consultant or contractor will want to insert into the agreement a stipulation that the owner is acting as agent on behalf of all the owners which are bound by the contract.  Otherwise, an owner which has not signed the contract is not bound by it and may bring proceedings without regard to the provisions of the contract, including the limitation of liability clause.
  2.  If it is proposed to include a limitation of liability clause in a building or consultant’s contract, then consideration should be given to whether the wording applies to negligent conduct undertaken during the project. According to this decision, unless the clause refers to that sort of conduct the clause will not apply to it. This result may be desirable from the owner’s standpoint and undesirable from the contractor’s or consultant’s standpoint.
  3. Consultants may want to ensure that the contract between them deals with the impact of liability upon one of them caused by the other, or at least devise an insurance regime that provides adequate protection, not just against liability for the wrongful acts of each consultant but for the liability for the wrongful acts of one consultant which are imposed on the others by way of restitutionary principles.

Whether or not one agrees with the conclusions of the Alberta Court of Appeal in this decision, it is certainly a wake-up call about the frailties and hidden traps of limitation clauses in building and consultants’ contracts.

See Heintzman and Goldsmith on Canadian Building Contracts, 4th ed., chapter 6, parts 2(b)(i)(C) and (ii)(C). 
Swift v. Eleven Eleven Architecture Inc.
2014 CarswellAlta 153, 2014 ABCA 49.

Building contracts – limitation clauses – negligent misrepresentation – architects and engineers

Thomas G. Heintzman O.C., Q.C., FCIArb                                                                                   March 30, 2014

www.heintzmanadr.com

www.constructionlawcanada.com