Payment bonds come in various shapes and sizes and it is important to read them carefully before concluding what they bond. They may not just bond the payment obligation of the party obtaining the bond. They may also bond the payment obligations of all persons on the project.  If they do the latter, then the bond may expose the party which obtained the bond to more than one payment obligation.  That was the conclusion in Nova Scotia Court of Appeal in the recent case of APM Construction Services Inc. v. Caribou Island Electric Ltd.

 Background

ACS was an unpaid sub-sub-contractor on a building project of the province of Nova Scotia.  It sought payment under a bond obtained by the general contractor, APM, from Travelers Insurance. The bond stated as follows:

 NOW, THEREFORE, THE CONDITION OF THIS OBLIGATION is such that if the Principal shall at all times promptly make payment to all Claimants for all work, materials or services used or reasonably required for use in performance of the Contract, or as the same be changed, altered or varied, to the satisfaction of the Obligee, then this obligation shall be void.

. . .

IN THIS BOND where there is a reference to Claimant it shall mean any person, firm or corporation doing or performing any work or service or placing or furnishing any materials, or both, for any purpose related to the performance of the Contract:  work, service and materials being constructed to include all water, gas, power, light, heat, oil, gasoline, service or rental equipment which is supplied or used for or in connection with the performance of the Contract.   (underlining by the court)

 APM’s subcontractor was Caribou Island Electric which had in turn subcontractred work to ACS, but had not paid ACS in full. Caribou owed taxes to the Canadian Revenue Agency and CRA made demand on APM for payment in full of the amounts owed by APM to Caribou.  The obligation of APM to pay CRA was undisputed, and the issue was whether, upon payment of those monies, Travelers had any fuher obligation to ACS and the other contractors or suppliers on the project.

ACS acknowledged that the payment by APM to CRA discharged APM’s payment obligation to Caribou under the subcontract and discharged the lien registered by ACS. Indeed, ACS acknowledged that this payment also discharged APM’s trust fund obligation, and in light of that admission the Court of Appeal said that the present case did not decide that issue.

However, ACS asserted that, even though APM’s contractual and lien obligations may have been discharged, the bond was not discharged.  It asserted that the bond was a separate and self-standing obligation which remained in effect, and Travelers was obliged to pay it under the bond.

APM and Travelers asserted that this interpretation of the bond was absurd, and that if Travelers was obliged to pay ACS’s claim, then APM would be obliged to recompense Travelers under the bond.  Effectively, APM would be obliged to pay monies twice, once to CRA and again to ACS. APM and Travelers said that that could not be the proper interpretation of the bond.

The Decision

 The Nova Scotia Court of Appeal helpfully stated the following principles applicable to the interpretation of a bond:

 

1. The bond is a freestanding contract and its terms ultimately govern the interpretation exercise. The wording of the bond’s terms must be given its ordinary and literal meaning. The words cannot be interpreted in isolation but must be looked at in the context of the bond as a whole.

2. The court will look to the intentions of the parties and, in so doing, will try to give commercial efficacy to the agreement. However, the court will not replace the parties’ agreement with its own. Thus, if the wording of the agreement is clear and unambiguous, parties will be held to their agreement, even where the results appear to be draconian or absurd….

3. Where the disputed contract is part of a series of contracts, the court will look to the surrounding contracts as well. However, in the context of surety bonds, the terms of the bond ultimately govern; while the underlying contract may be considered, it will only be determinative if the specific obligations contained within it are incorporated by reference into the bond.

4. Contra proferentemis available but only where there is an ambiguity that cannot be resolved through other principles of contractual interpretation.”

The Court then considered the form of other bonds. The standard form CCDC bond says:

  “…A Claimant for the purpose of this Bond is defined as one having a direct contract with the Principal for labour, material, or both, used or reasonably required for use in the performance of the Contract….”  (underlining added)

 The bond required by the federal government says:

 “For the purpose of this Bond, a Claimant is defined as one having a direct contract with the Principal or any Sub-Contractor of the Principal for labour, material, or both, used or reasonably required for use in the performance of the Contract …”  (underlining added)

 The Court noted that in the CCDC form, only subcontractors were protected by the bond, while in the federal form, contractors and subcontractors are protected.  The bond in the present case protected any person providing work or materials to the project.

Discussion

If a payment bond taken out by the contractor is premised on payment, not just of subcontractors by the contractor, but payment of any person performing work or service or placing or furnishing any materials, or for any purpose related to the performance of the main contract, then the bond will not be discharged by payment by the contractor to the subcontractor nor by the discharge of the contractor’s obligations under construction or builders lien legislation.

Rather, if so expressed, then the bond is a self-standing independent obligation to pay all persons performing work on the project which, if not fulfilled, may be called upon by any of those persons. Accordingly, if the contractor is obliged to pay a taxation authority which claims unpaid taxes against the subcontractor and therefore has a claim to the monies due by the contractor to the subcontractor, that payment may discharge the contractor’s liability under the subcontract with the subcontractor and under construction and builders lien legislation, but it will not discharge the bond, and the contractor may be liable a second time to recompense the bonding company.

Construction liens  –  bonds  –  priorities  –  subcontractors  -  interpretation

APM Construction Services Inc. v. Caribou Island Electric Ltd.,  2013 CarswellNS 291, 2013 NSCA 62, 21 C.L.R. (4th) 106

Thomas G. Heintzman O.C., Q.C., FCIArb                                                                                                        September 9, 2013

 www.heintzmanadr.com

www.constructionlawcanada.com