An “Interest”ing Decision – A contractual interest claim gone wrong

What an awful Blog post title. My apologies.

The Decision of Madame Justice Pierce in 1188710 Ontario Ltd. v. Gartner, 2012 ONSC 6110 (CanLII) is a good reminder of how judges trying to do perceived justice between parties sometimes finds the law bent (or worse – disregarded) in favour of perceived justice.

The facts of the case aren’t particularly remarkable – contractor does work, owner takes issue with various things and doesn’t pay all invoices, contractor liens, lawsuit follows.  Same old story.  Sometimes the contractor comes out on top and sometimes it is the owner that prevails.  In this case, Pierce J. interpreted the agreement between the contractor and the owners and the evidence that was presented at trial almost entirely in favour the contractor.

The two aspects of the Decision that prompted me to write this short post are:

  1. Pierce J. found a contractual entitlement to interest and awarded the contractor interest at 5.5% per annum; and
  2. Pierce J. declared that the contractor has a lien against the Defendants’ property for an amount that includes the interest that she found to be owing.

Contractual Interest

If Pierce J. had just addressed the issue of interest as one of damages (the contractor’s losses based on interest the contractor had to pay on its line of credit or to its own suppliers) rather than as interest and if the contractor had presented better evidence on this point, I don’t think there would be an issue.  However, because Pierce J. expressly found that there was no agreement as to interest (see paras 37 & 40), I think she should have been foreclosed from awarding contractual interest.  Nonetheless, she (wrongly in my view) reasoned that a contractual obligation to pay invoices within a specified time implied an agreement to pay interest if payment was not made within that time (see para 44).  If Pierce J. were right on this, it would effectively mean that every contract that obliges a party to pay contains an implied agreement to pay interest if payment isn’t made.  I don’t think that this is the law and I don’t think this accords with longstanding jurisprudence that parties should, as a general rule, be held to their bargains – if the contractor had wanted to negotiate a contractual entitlement and rate of interest, he could easily have done so.

The next part is that there seemed to be some very loose (it seems to have been given just in oral testimony at trial) evidence that the contractor had suffered some sort of losses based on having to dip into his line of credit and charges from his own suppliers as a result of the owner not paying all of his invoices (see para 100, for example).  It was this evidence that Pierce J. used to determine the rate of “interest” that the contractor should be entitled to (5 browse around here.5% was the contractor’s rate on his line of credit…so Pierce J. somehow made that the contractual rate of interest “agreed to” between the contractor and the owner).  I wouldn’t be so offended by this had Pierce J. just characterised the amount payable as damages rather than interest.  However, even then, the problem would be that she found as a fact that, “Unfortunately, there is no evidence about how much [the contractor] had to draw on his line of credit for this project, or how much interest he paid.”  In effect, she awarded damages in the absence of any evidence of the proven quantum of those damages.

I think that there should have been found to be no agreement as to interest and so only pre-judgment interest payable to the contractor pursuant to the Courts of Justice Act.  Further, should Pierce J. have been inclined to find a breach of an obligation to pay on the part of the owner, she could have still found damages to have resulted from the breach but she should have then found (on the evidence described by the Decision) that the contractor did not adduce sufficient evidence to support his claim and then awarded no damages on the basis that quantum had not been proven.  Instead we are left with, in my view, a bad Decision (on this point) that could come back to haunt other litigants arguing this sort of contractual interest dispute.

Lien for Interest

On the second point, section 14(2) of the Construction Lien Act expressly says that, “No person is entitled to a lien for any interest on the amount owed to the person in respect of the services or materials that have been supplied by the person, but nothing in this subsection affects any right that the person may otherwise have to recover that interest.”  As such, Pierce J. erred in law by including the interest she awarded the contractor in the declared amount of the lien she declared the contractor to have over the owner’s lands.  The interest should have been included in the money judgment but should not have been included in the value of the lien.

Suppliers and contractors beware! – Owner’s own defective specification triggers supplier’s warranty obligation

Hypothetical contractual provision and scenario:

“The contractor shall supply and install 8” widgits as required by the owner.  The contractor warrants that the 8” widgits will be fit for their intended purpose and that the 8” widgits will be free from all defects arising at any time from faulty design in any part of the 8” widgits.”

After the 8” widgits are supplied and installed, it turns out that 8” widgits are too long to serve their purpose and 6” widgits should have been used.  The 8” widgits have to be replaced with 6” widgits at a cost of $3,000,000.

On these limited facts, do you think a court would make the contractor or the owner bear the cost of replacing the 8” widgits with 6” widgits?

The recent decision of the British Columbia Court of Appeal in Greater Vancouver Water District v. North American Pipe & Steel Ltd. serves as a serious warning to suppliers and supply contractor about the risks that can attach to an unqualified warranty against design defects, even when the manufactured product is supplied in compliance with the owner’s (or some other third party’s) specifications.

The case arose from a contract for the supply of water pipe to the Greater Vancouver Regional District (the owner).  The owner’s specification required that the pipe have a seal coat over a fibre mat over-wrap.  The contract between the owner and the pipe supplier included provisions that the supplier:

  • “…warrants … that the Goods … will conform to all applicable Specifications … and, unless otherwise specified, will be fit for the purpose for which they are to be used. …and
  • “…warrants and guarantees that the Goods are free from all defects arising at any time from faulty design in any part of the Goods.”

The pipe was manufactured according to the owner’s specifications.  However, following the supply of the pipe, the seal coat on the pipe began delaminating.  The owner sued under the warranty for the repair costs for the defective pipe.  The pipe supplier defended itself, arguing that its warranty should be restricted to its own design or manufacture errors (not defects arising from the owner’s own specifications).

The trial judge agreed with the pipe supplier and found the above provisions to be inconsistent with one another.  She reconciled the inconsistency by resort to the rules of contractual interpretation and determined that the parties did not intend that the supplier’s guarantee and warranty (the second provision above) would extend to cover defects arising from the owner’s own specifications.  On the basis of the expert evidence presented, the trial judge found that the defect in the pipe was caused by the owner’s specifications (i.e. not some other manufacturing defect) and dismissed the owner’s claims in respect of the defective pipe.  The owner appealed.

The Court of Appeal disagreed with the trial judge and found that the contract was clear and the warranty applied regardless of whose design gave rise to the defects. The Court of Appeal found an old Supreme Court of Canada case to be applicable and determinative of the appeal.  The Court of Appeal reversed the Judgment of the Court below and found in the owner’s favour.

It’s an interesting Decision but the nub of the caution to be taken from it is found in Justice Chiasson’s closing remarks:

[Warranty clauses such as the one here] distribute risk. Sometimes they appear to do so unfairly but that is a matter for the marketplace, not for the courts. There is a danger attached to such clauses. Contractors may refuse to bid or, if they do so, may build in costly contingencies. Those who do not protect themselves from unknown potential risk may pay dearly. Owners are unlikely to benefit from circumstances where suppliers and contractors are faced with the prospect of potentially disastrous consequences. Parties to construction or supply contracts may find it in their best interest to address more practically the assumption of design risk. To fail to do so merely creates the potential for protracted and costly litigation.

This is another example of the courts deciding a contractual dispute between two parties on the basis of, “a deal is a deal even if it’s not a very fair deal” rather than on the basis of what many might consider to be the more “fair” or the “correct” outcome.

If you are a supplier or supply contractor (or even a trade or general contractor for that matter), this case gives good cause for you to pay very close attention to the warranty requirements when responding to a tender call or reviewing an owner’s proposed form of contract.  If the proposed contract requires you to manufacture or install in accordance with someone else’s specifications/instructions and the warranty/guarantee provisions then make you responsible for any defects, you might very well be responsible for the owner’s (or other third party’s) own defective specification.  Coming full circle to my opening scenario – if you are that contractor, you better be sure that the 8” widget is manufactured and installed properly and that the 8” widget is the right size or you might be $3,000,000 lighter in the pocket!

Elliot Lake mall collapse litigation is underway

The Globe and Mail reports today that lawsuits are underway. Click here to read the article.  There probably won’t be much of interest to report for quite some time (as the case moves slowly through discovery and pre-trial procedural motions) but I will keep an eye on the case and post anything of interest.