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!

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“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.