To arbitrate or litigate…that is the question

In the last decade or so, alternative dispute resolution (ADR) – mediation and arbitration – has come a long way.  In fact, a good argument can be made that the “A” in ADR could probably be dropped. Gavel

Briefly, mediation is the process of seeking a negotiated resolution/settlement to a dispute using a neutral third party to facilitate the negotiation.  There is no “decision maker” in a classic mediation.  Mediation is a process that can take place outside of litigation entirely, be engaged in the context of litigation in an attempt at pre-trial settlement, or can even take place in the context of an arbitration proceeding (Med-Arb or otherwise).

Arbitration, by contrast, is much closer to the adversarial and adjudicative process that we associate with the courts.  Sometimes arbitration is mandated by legislation or a non-negotiated contract between that parties (that one party didn’t really have any say in).  In those cases, a party might be stuck with arbitration whether it/he/she wants to be or not.  Other times, however, parties will jointly agree to forego the courts in favour of arbitration.  There are, as far as I’m concerned, only really four essential reasons that parties might opt for arbitration over litigation.

  1. Privacy – unlike court proceedings, which are public in nature, arbitration is a private process where no decisions are published and the parties can keep the evidence and outcome private.
  2. Process – parties to an arbitration normally have the opportunity to agree upon procedures and rules that are different from the Rules of Civil Procedure and thereby shape and tailor the process to suit the needs of the dispute.
  3. Speed/Cost – because an arbitration has an adjudicator hired by the parties and they are not caught in the public system “waiting their turn”, there is at least the theoretical possibility of getting a result faster than if the parties were simply to litigate (for example, in Toronto it is not uncommon to have to wait five or six months to get a 15 minute hearing for a simple procedural motion).
  4. Appeals – the parties to an arbitration can limit the rights to appeal the decision of the arbitrator.

Zafir Holdings Inc. v. Grassmere Construction Ltd., 2013 ONSC 1835 is a very recent case out of the Ontario Superior Court of Justice that demonstrates how the objectives of arbitration aren’t always satisfied in the manner that the parties may have hoped when they agreed – perhaps with flowers and butterflies floating about – to arbitrate.

Zafir Holdings was the owner and Grassmere Construction was its general contractor in relation to a large industrial construction project.  A dispute arose between Grassmere Construction and one of its subcontractors regarding some of the earthworks and that dispute percolated its way up to become a dispute between the Grassmere Construction and Zafir Holdings.  Grassmere Construction’s subcontractor got judgment at a trial against Grassmere Construction and Grassmere Construction and Zafir Holdings agreed to arbitrate the issues between them.  The arbitrator found that Zafir Holdings owed Grassmere Construction a large portion of the amount that Grassmere Construction had to pay its subcontractor (as well as other amounts in relation to other issues).  Zafir Holdings sought, and was granted, the Court’s permission (leave) to appeal the arbitrator’s decision.

In the context of this short article, this case is notable insofar as it demonstrates how the primary objectives of arbitration were probably almost entirely obliterated in the end result. Consider:

  1. Privacy – the appeal, and the very fact that I was able to read the Court’s Decision and write about it here, means that if the parties had privacy as one of their objectives (whether unilateral or mutual), that benefit of arbitration has been lost.
  2. Process – there’s no way to tell whether the parties achieved any benefit here but, insofar as the ability to modify process usually has cost as its objective, I generally doubt it.
  3. Speed/Cost – the dispute arose in 2004 or 2005 and Grassmere Construction’s subcontractor obtained its judgment in June 2010.  By contrast, Grassmere Construction and Zafir Holdings didn’t get their decision in the arbitration until November, 2012 – two and a half years later!  Given that both Grassmere Construction and Zafir Holdings were likely involved in the litigation with the subcontractor (at least to some extent) and then had to adjudicate their dispute before the arbitrator (and pay the arbitrator’s fee which was likely substantial), it’s hard to imagine how there might have been significant cost-savings in the way that it all unfolded.
  4. Appeals – Zafir Holdings has been granted leave to appeal so there was no benefit here (in fact, the motion to seek leave to appeal added a layer of cost that wouldn’t have existed if the underlying arbitration decision had been a judgment of the court).

I’m not anti-arbitration – it certainly has the potential to be a useful alternative to litigation in certain types of cases.  However, cases such as Zafir Holdings Inc. v. Grassmere Construction Ltd. highlight the reason that I believe most parties contemplating putting a mandatory arbitration provision into an agreement, or those facing a decision whether to arbitrate rather than litigate in the face of a dispute, should very carefully and deliberately consider the potential benefits of arbitration.  In such circumstances, the question should be asked: “Is there a really compelling reason that I/we should take on the cost of an arbitrator (in addition to the cost of my/our lawyers) rather than proceed in a public forum and let my/our tax dollars pay for the judge?” More often than not, in my view, the answer will be “No”.

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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 (5.5% 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!

Notice (Still) Means Notice: Ontario Court of Appeal upholds dismissal of contractor’s claim for failure to provide notice of the claim to the owner as required by the contract

Hot off the presses is Technicore Underground Inc. v. Toronto (City) in which the Ontario Court of Appeal has upheld the lower Court’s decision to dismiss a contractor’s (Clearway) claim against the owner (City of Toronto) as a result of Clearway’s failure to give the City of Toronto notice of its claim within 30 days “…after completion of the work affected by the situation” as was required by the contract between the parties.

Clearway gave the City of Toronto notice for part of its claim within the 30 day period required by the contract but didn’t give notice of another, much larger, component of its desired claim until more than three years later and within the context of the litigation that was commenced following the initial notice was given.  The City of Toronto brought a motion for partial summary judgment to dismiss the portion of Clearway’s claim for which notice had not been given within the required 30 days.  The motions judge granted partial summary judgment and dismissed the bulk of Clearway’s claim (more than $2.1M) for failure to give notice as required by the contract.

On appeal, Clearway argued that:

  • the notice provision was merely procedural and required “failing which” (or my preferred, “or else…”) language to have the drastic effect of permitting the dismissal of the claim;
  • in the absence of prejudice to the City of Toronto arising from the failure to give notice, the failure to give notice should not be fatal;
  • the City of Toronto’s own failure to comply with a different provision of the contract should disentitle it from relying on the notice provision;
  • portions of the claims for which no/late notice was given were really just extensions of the parts of the claim for which notice was given; and
  • the City of Toronto waived its right to rely on the notice provision.

The Court of Appeal rejected all of Clearway’s arguments and dismissed the appeal.  In so doing, the Court relied heavily on the Supreme Court of Canada Decision in Corpex (1977) Inc. v. The Queen in right of Canada (and the BC and Ontario Decisions in Doyle Construction Co. v. Carling O’Keefe Breweries of Canada Ltd. and Bemar Construction (Ontario) Inc. v. Mississauga (City of)).  I’m not going to repeat or summarize the Court’s reasoning but, if you are so inclined, it is worth the 15-20 minute read.

For contractors and owners, the primary take-away from this Decision is the reminder of how critical it is to know what is in your contract, understand what is required in various situations, and if the contract requires that you do something – to do it!  The consequences of failing to follow the requirements of your contract are not always this dramatic (and sometimes there will be some fact or event that can relieve you from a failure to comply) but why take the chance?

For fellow lawyers, aside from the substantive utility and importance of this Decision, I think we can all take note of the increasingly obvious reality that one of the most effective, appropriate, and useful applications of the new Rule 20 regime for summary judgment motions is the early and inexpensive resolution of claims that can be determined on the basis of the interpretation of contractual provisions (and their application to uncontroversial facts).

Can the Ontario Repair and Storage Liens Act be used to secure unpaid debts in the construction context?

The short answer: Possibly sometimes, maybe.

I recently had a case where this was one of the primary issues.  My client was supplying coated structural steel for a large steel building.  Raw (uncoated) steel was purchased in the US, shipped to Ontario to be coated by a third party subcontractor and, once coated, the steel was then shipped to the project site (located in another Province).  A dispute arose between my client and the subcontractor coating the steel regarding price and claimed extras and the subcontractor asserted a construction lien in relation to the steel already delivered to the project site and a possessory lien under section 3 of the Repair and Storage Liens Act (RSLA) over the steel still in the subcontractor’s possession.

In my view, the subcontractor’s invocation of the RSLA to assert a possessory lien over the steel in its possession (effectively holding my client’s steel hostage until my client posted security with the Court to secure its release) was a twisted and tortured application of legislation ostensibly designed to provide security to an unpaid “repairer” who had fixed a sailboat or a car or a wristwatch or some other widget (you get the idea).  However, the definitions of “article”, “repair”, and “repairer” under the RSLA are so expansive that, at least at first blush, it can be argued to apply to individual items (i.e. steel) in the manufacturing process.  The relevant definitions are:

“article” means an item of tangible personal property other than a fixture;

“repair” means an expenditure of money on, or the application of labour, skill or materials to, an article for the purpose of altering, improving or restoring its properties or maintaining its condition and includes,

(a) the transportation of the article for purpose of making a repair,

(b) the towing of an article,

(c) the salvage of an article;

“repairer” means a person who makes a repair on the understanding that the person will be paid for the repair;

As you can see, these definitions are extremely broad and almost any item is capable of being an “article” and almost anything that someone can do to that item (with the expectation of compensation or profit) can be considered a “repair”.  The real pinch, though, is just how powerful (and some might say draconian) the RSLA is – without getting into the fine legal details, it gives the party asserting the possessory lien the ability to hold the item(s) hostage, name its price, and barring early and expensive court challenge or the posting of security, sell the item(s) without any trial or court Order.  No other statute in Ontario, that I’m aware of, gives a self-declared creditor that kind of power without any kind of pre-execution/pre-sale judicial process.

Realistically, this apparent potential for misapplication of the RSLA in the manufacturing/construction process is not likely to have a frequent or significant effect on the general construction industry – the problem my client ran into with the RSLA can only practically arise when Party A delivers its own material to party B for Party B to “alter” or “improve” that material and then a dispute arises between Party A and Party B while Party B still has Party A’s “articles” in its possession.  This is where Party B can hold Party A’s own material hostage to extract payment (or the posting of security) for Party A to secure its release.  In the more common scenario where Party A is paying Party B money to build or “alter” or “improve” Party B’s own material, the RSLA doesn’t really work because Party B would simply be refusing to release its own material to Party A – doesn’t pack quite the same punch.

If your business (or that of one of your clients if you are a lawyer or professional advisor) involves delivering materials to someone else for them to be altered or improved, beware the RSLA.  Where this is the case, the RSLA permits the parties to contract out of the repairer’s right to a possessory lien (the opening words of section 3) and doing so should be given some very serious consideration.

A Forest of Fees and Rights and Principle Trees – A sad but common tale of small money construction litigation outstripping its own value

There’s nothing particularly new or ground-breaking about the recent Ontario Superior Court Decision in Sierra Excavating v. Olszewski and TD Bank, 2012 ONSC 2271 (CanLII) but it is an interesting little case that highlights the importance of seeing the forest for the trees early in the litigation process.  What forest? The legal costs. What trees? The legal principles at play and the parties’ perceived rights.

The facts are a bit lengthy but not complicated and are, in summary form, as follows:

  • As a result of water intrusion into their basement, the owners of a single family house in Caledon, Ontario hired an excavation contractor to excavate around portions of the foundation of their home and carry out some work to waterproof the foundation and stop the leaks.
  • The contract price was $19,576.13.
  • The contractor carried out the work but leaks persisted.
  • A couple of subsequent attempts by the contractor to repair the leaks failed, the owners refused to pay, and the contractor registered a construction lien and sued for the $14,576.23 claimed to be owing under the contract.
  • The owners had another contractor remove and re-do the work (successfully – the leaks were fixed) and the owners counterclaimed for $40,000 for the higher cost of the second repair.
  • The Judge found largely in favour of the owners, ruling that the contractor had not done what it was hired to do and so was not entitled to a lien (or further payment) and would have to pay the owners $21,466.20 in damages for their cost to have the work re-done and done properly.

What I find important enough about this case to write this little blurb has almost nothing to do with the facts or the Judge’s decision – it has to do with highlighting how easy it can be for litigants to end up in a four-ish year legal battle (capped off with a three-ish day trial) that must have cost tens-ish of thousands of dollars in litigation costs (lawyers and experts) over what was never realistically more than a $20,000-ish fight, regardless of which side won or lost.  That is not, in my opinion, a happy outcome, even for the “victorious” owners.  At the end of the day, I would imagine that most, if not all, of what the owners were awarded will probably be gone in litigation costs and, between paying the Judgment, its own lawyer and expert, and some amount of the owners’ legal costs, the contractor is probably out somewhere north of $40,000 (on a $14,000 claim!).  Would either side have predicted its financial outcome in 2008 when the lawsuit was commenced?  I don’t know for sure but I doubt it.

This case, and countless others like it, exemplifies the need for both prospective Plaintiffs and Defendants in construction litigation to think very hard before they “dig in” for a long fight over what is, in the context of litigation, not a lot of money.  Some people and companies are rich enough to have the privilege of throwing economics out the window in favour of principle – most, however, are not.

From a lawyer’s perspective, this case bolds, underlines, and then highlights the need to have very frank and very clear discussions with our clients about the potential course and costs of litigation – particularly when there are relatively small amounts of money is dispute – so that our clients can make informed decisions about how they want to proceed and how aggressive they want to be in trying to settle their disputes.  Sometimes “small money” litigation will still go the long, expensive distance but at least the end result will then be no surprise to our clients.

On a closing note: I am not being in any way critical of the parties’ lawyers in this case – I don’t know either of them and obviously have no idea about how the litigation proceeded, whether there were attempts at settlement, or as to the overall dynamics of the litigation over its four year course.  To the contrary, my point is that the economics of virtually any “small money” construction litigation has the potential to get away from the parties over time and this case is just yet another example of this all too common problem.

“I said ¾ of an inch. Look – it’s right there in the contract”

D’Urzo Demolition Inc. v. Damaris Developments Inc., 2012 ONSC 1912 (CanLII), released by the Ontario Superior Court of Justice on March 26, 2012, serves as a good reminder to owners and contractors of the importance of ensuring a mutual understanding of the specifications and other requirements of the work and then properly incorporating those documents and requirements into the construction contract.  For litigation lawyers, it also serves as a good reminder of the importance of ensuring that adequate and flexible evidence of damages (whether Plaintiff’s damages or a Defendant’s claim for set-off) is obtained and brought to trial.

Basic Facts

In a nutshell, D’Urzo Demolition Inc. (“D’Urzo”) was the successful bidder to demolish structures on a property in Toronto and then mechanically reduce the rubble into smaller crush.  The owner, Damaris Developments Inc. (“Damaris”), took the position that the contract required D’Urzo to crush the concrete to ¾ inch and to also demolish curbs and asphalt and remove same from the site. D’Urzo took the position that it only had to reduce the rubble to size of 3 inches (and that a smaller crush would constitute an extra) and that demolishing the asphalt and curbs and removing same from the site was not included in the scope of work and, again, constituted an extra.  At the end of the day, D’Urzo was substantially successful at trial – Damaris succeeded only in achieving a finding that the asphalt and curbs had to be demolished – D’Urzo succeeded in convincing the Court that the contract only required a 3 inch crush, that the asphalt should not have been required to be removed from the site and disposed of, and that Damaris was in breach of the contract for failing to pay.

Take Away Notes

Of note for contractors and owners – the work was put out for tender, there were competitive bids, and the parties used a standard form (CCDC2) contract and they still ended up in protracted litigation (the lien was filed in May, 2007 and trial did not conclude until December, 2011 – almost 5 years!) arising from a failure to clearly and properly set out what work was required by the contract.  If you are going to go to the trouble of putting a job out for tender and then use a detailed and established form of contract, spend the time and money to make sure that the specifications and drawings that establish the scope of work are both clear and properly incorporated by the contract.

Of note for lawyers – Damaris claimed $50,400.00 as its back charge to remove and dispose of the asphalt and curbs and provided evidence that this was what it cost.  But Master Albert found at trial that D’Urzo only had to remove the asphalt, not dispose of it.  Because Damaris’ evidence didn’t breakdown the back charge between removal and disposal, Master Albert had only D’Urzo’s evidence that the cost to remove the asphalt was $2,643.75 and he awarded that amount. This outcome highlights the risk of evidence limited to global amounts that aren’t broken down into component parts in case of divided findings at trial.