Justia Contracts Opinion SummariesArticles Posted in Washington Supreme Court
Lake Hills Invs., LLC v. Rushforth Constr. Co., Inc.
Lake Hills Investments LLC sued AP Rushforth (AP) for breach of contract, alleging, among other things, that the work AP conducted on the Lake Hills Village project was defective. AP counterclaimed that Lake Hills underpaid them. At trial, an affirmative defense instruction (jury instruction 9) was given, stating that “AP has the burden to prove that Lake Hills provided the plans and specifications for an area of work at issue, that AP followed those plans and specifications, and that the [construction] defect resulted from defects in the plans or specifications. If you find from your consideration of all the evidence that this affirmative defense has been proved for a particular area, then your verdict should be for AP as to that area.” The Court of Appeals held that this instruction understated AP’s burden of proof and allowed the jury to find that if any part of the construction defect resulted from Lake Hills’ plans and specifications, then the jury could find for AP. The court concluded that the error was not harmless, reversed, and remanded for a new trial. The Washington Supreme Court reversed the Court of Appeals, finding that although jury instruction 9 had the potential to mislead the jury, Lake Hills could not show it was prejudiced. The Court of Appeals' judgment was reversed and the matter remanded for the appellate court to consider issues related to the trial court's award of attorney fees. View "Lake Hills Invs., LLC v. Rushforth Constr. Co., Inc." on Justia Law
Wood v. Milionis Constr., Inc.
The issue central to this appeal centered on a “covenant judgment” arrangement: an insured defendant, facing suit by a plaintiff, settles claims without the insurer’s consent in exchange for a release from liability and assignment of potential bad faith claims against the insurer to the plaintiff. If the trial court deems the settlement reasonable, that settlement amount becomes the presumptive measure of damages in the later bad faith action brought by the plaintiff against the insurer. Insurer Cincinnati Specialty Underwriters (Cincinnati), challenged the trial court’s order approving as reasonable a $1.7 million settlement between plaintiffs, Anna and Jeffrey Wood (Woods), and Cincinnati’s insureds, Milionis Construction Inc. (MCI) and Stephen Milionis. A divided Court of Appeals held the trial court abused its discretion because the reasonableness finding credited a defense expert’s evaluation of contract damages at $1.2 million despite other evidence in the record suggesting the defense’s evaluation of damages never rose above $399,000. The Washington Supreme Court reversed and reinstated the trial court’s order. The Supreme Court found the trial court properly conducted the reasonableness hearing and evaluated the varied and conflicting evidence of contract damages. In addition, the court appropriately considered damages for plaintiffs’ extracontractual claims as well as allowable attorney fees. "In finding an abuse of discretion, the Court of Appeals majority misapprehended parts of the record and substituted its assessment of the competing damages evaluations for the trial court’s assessment." View "Wood v. Milionis Constr., Inc." on Justia Law
Conway Constr. Co. v. City of Puyallup
The city of Puyallup (City) hired Conway Construction Company to build a road. The contract allowed the City to terminate the contract early either for its convenience or on Conway’s default, but a termination for convenience would result in more costs for the City. The City ended up terminating the contract partway through construction, claiming Conway defaulted. After a lengthy bench trial, the trial court concluded that Conway was not in default when the City terminated the contract and converted the termination into one for convenience. After review, the Washington Supreme Court affirmed the trial court’s decision. Further, the Court held that the City was not entitled to an offset for any defective work discovered after termination because the City did not provide Conway with the contractually required notice and opportunity to cure. View "Conway Constr. Co. v. City of Puyallup" on Justia Law
McLaughlin v. Travelers Commercial Ins. Co.
Todd McLaughlin was riding his bicycle on a Seattle street when the door of a parked vehicle opened right into him. McLaughlin fell, suffered injuries, and sought insurance coverage for various losses, including his medical expenses. McLaughlin’s insurance policy covered those expenses if McLaughlin was a “pedestrian” at the time of the accident. McLaughlin argued a bicyclist was a pedestrian, relying on the definition of “pedestrian” found in the Washington laws governing casualty insurance. The trial court held a bicyclist was not a pedestrian, reasoning that the plain meaning of "pedestrian" excluded bicyclists. The Court of Appeals affirmed, relying largely on its view that the Washington statute defined pedestrian for purposes of casualty insurance, excluded bicyclists. The Washington Supreme Court reversed. The Washington legislature defined “pedestrian” for purposes of casualty insurance in Washington broadly in RCW 48.22.005(11). The Supreme Court found that definition included bicyclists and applied to the insurance contract at issue here. "Even if we were to hold otherwise, at the very least, the undefined term 'pedestrian' in the insurance contract at issue must be considered ambiguous in light of the various definitions of 'pedestrian' discussed in this opinion. Being ambiguous, we must construe the insurance term favorably to the insured. Accordingly, we reverse the Court of Appeals and remand for further proceedings." View "McLaughlin v. Travelers Commercial Ins. Co." on Justia Law
Borton & Sons, Inc. v. Burbank Properties, LLC
When a lessee does not timely exercise an option contained in a lease agreement, special circumstances may warrant granting them extra time to exercise the option. In this case, petitioner Burbank Properties LLC mailed its notice shortly after the deadline had passed, and the trial court awarded Burbank an equitable grace period to exercise the option on summary judgment where it was undisputed that no valuable permanent improvements were made. The Washington Supreme Court granted review to decide valuable permanent improvements to the property were a necessary prerequisite to granting the equitable grace period. The Court held that granting an equitable grace period was proper only when a lessee made valuable improvements to property that would result in an inequitable forfeiture if the lessee was not given a grace period. View "Borton & Sons, Inc. v. Burbank Properties, LLC" on Justia Law
In re Estate of Petelle
After six years of marriage, Michael Petelle filed a petition to dissolve his marriage to petitioner, Michelle Ersfeld-Petelle, having separated on January 27, 2017. The parties, both represented by counsel, executed a separation contract and CR 2A agreement on February 14, 2017. The contract divided assets and liabilities, contained an integration clause, and required all modifications to be in writing. In the contract, the parties agreed “to make a complete and final settlement of all their marital and property rights and obligations on the following terms and conditions.” The contract also provided that the “contract shall be final and binding upon the execution of both parties, whether or not a legal separation or decree of dissolution is obtained[,]” and, by its terms, the contract remained valid and enforceable against the estate of either party if either party died after the execution of the contract. Though the contract contained a “Full Satisfaction of All Claims” section, the right to intestate succession was not mentioned. Petitioner claimed that she and Michael were contemplating reconciliation, citing an e-mail Michael sent to his attorney requesting an extension to the “closing date” of the divorce. Before any reconciliation or dissolution occurred, Michael died intestate on May 1, 2017. The issue this case presented for the Washington Supreme Court's review centered on whether Michelle, as surviving spouse, agreed in a separation contract to give up her right to intestate succession under RCW 11.04.015. Petitioner sought reversal of a published Court of Appeals opinion reversing the trial court’s denial of a motion to terminate her right to intestate succession in Michael's estate. After review, the Supreme Court concluded that under the terms of the contract, petitioner expressly waived her right to intestate succession. View "In re Estate of Petelle" on Justia Law
Robbins v. Mason County Title Ins. Co.
In 1854, the Washington Territory and nine Native American tribes, including the Squaxin Island Tribe (the Tribe), entered into the 1854 Treaty of Medicine Creek (the Treaty), under which the Tribe relinquished their rights to land but retained “the right of taking fish at all usual and accustomed grounds and stations . . . , in common with all citizens of the Territory.” The District Court for the Western District of Washington has interpreted “fish” under the Treaty to include shellfish. In 1978, Leslie and Harlene Robbins (Robbins) purchased property in Mason County, Washington that included tidelands with manila clam beds. In connection with the purchase of the property, Robbins obtained a standard policy of title insurance from Mason County Title Insurance Company (MCTI) which provided MCTI would insure Robbins “against loss or damage sustained by reason of: . . . [a]ny defect in, or lien or encumbrance on, said title existing at the date hereof.” For years Robbins had contracted with commercial shellfish harvesters to enter Robbins’s property to harvest shellfish from the tidelands. The issue this case presented for the Washington Supreme Court's review was whether MCTI had a duty to defend Robbins when the Tribe announced it planned to assert its treaty right to harvest shellfish from the property. The Court affirmed the Court of Appeals and remanded to the superior court for further proceedings. The Supreme Court held that because the insurance policy conceivably covered the treaty right and no exceptions to coverage applied, MCTI owed the property owners a duty to defend and, in failing to do so, breached the duty. Because this breach was unreasonable given the uncertainty in the law, MCTI acted in bad faith. Further, because the property owners did not seek summary judgment on MCTI’s affirmative defenses, the Supreme Court remanded to the superior court for consideration of the defenses. View "Robbins v. Mason County Title Ins. Co." on Justia Law
Fireside Bank v. Askins
In August 2004, the Askinses purchased a used car by entering into a retail installment contract with East Sprague Motors & R.V.'s, Inc. for $13,713.44 at an interest rate of 18.95% per year. The contract was contemporaneously assigned to Fireside Bank (formerly known as Fireside Thrift Co.). The Askinses made two years of regular payments, then returned the car to Fireside in an attempt to satisfy the loan. However, the loan was never satisfied. Fireside sold the car for less than the remaining balance owed, leaving the Askinses with an ongoing obligation. Fireside then sued the Askinses for the remaining balance of the loan. The Askinses did not appear, and the court entered a default judgment against them, which included prejudgment interest, costs and attorney fees. Fireside assigned the debt to Cavalry Investments, LLC, in 2012. For the next 8 years, the Askinses were subjected to 14 writs of garnishment and several unsuccessful attempts at garnishment by Fireside and Cavalry. Approximately $10,849.16 was collected over the course of the garnishment proceedings. Fireside and Cavalry did not file any satisfactions of the garnishment judgments or partial satisfactions of the underlying judgment. Cavalry’s final writ of garnishment, obtained on August 3, 2015, stated that the Askinses still owed $11,158.94. This case presented an opportunity for the Washington Supreme Court to discuss the limits of CR60, in cases where a creditor uses the garnishment process to enforce a default judgment against a debtor. The Court held CR 60 may not be used to prosecute an independent cause of action separate and apart from the underlying cause of action in which the original order or judgment was filed. The Court held the trial court properly considered argument and evidence relevant to the questions of what was still owed on the underlying existing judgment and whether that judgment had been satisfied. The trial court correctly ruled that the judgment had been satisfied and ordered that the Askinses were entitled to prospective relief. View "Fireside Bank v. Askins" on Justia Law
Peoples v. United Servs. Auto. Ass’n
Krista Peoples and Joel Stedman filed Washington Consumer Protection Act ("CPA") suits against their insurance carriers for violating Washington claims-handling regulations and wrongfully denying them personal injury protection (PIP) benefits. The federal district court for the Western District of Washington certified a question of law relating to whether Peoples and Stedman alleged an injury to "business or property" to invoke their respective policies' PIP benefits. Peoples alleged her insurance carrier refused, without any individualized assessment, to pay medical provider bills whenever a computerized review process determined the bill exceeded a predetermined limit, and that the insurance company's failure to investigate or make individualized determinations violated WAC 284-30-330(4) and WAC 284-30-395(1). Due to this practice of algorithmic review, the insurance carrier failed to pay all reasonable medical expenses arising from a covered event, in violation or RCW 48.22.005(7). Stedman alleged his carrier terminate PIP benefits whenever an insured reached "Maximum Medical Improvement," which he alleged violated WAC 284-30-395(1). The Washington Supreme Court held an insurance carrier's wrongful withholding of PIP benefits injures the insured in their "business or property." An insured in these circumstances may recover actual damages, if proved, including out-of-pocket medical expenses that should have been covered, and could seek injunctive relief, such as compelling payment of the benefits to medical providers. Other business or property injuries, apart from wrongful denial of benefits, that are caused by an insurer's mishandling of PIP claims are also cognizable under the CPA. View "Peoples v. United Servs. Auto. Ass'n" on Justia Law
T-Mobile USA, Inc. v. Selective Ins. Co. of Am.
The United States District Court for the Ninth Circuit certified a question of law to the Washington Supreme Court. Specifically, the federal appellate court asked whether an insurance company was bound by its agent’s written representation (made in a certificate of insurance) that a particular corporation was an additional insured under a given policy. This question arose in a case where: (1) the Ninth Circuit already ruled that the agent acted with apparent authority; but (2) the agent’s representation turned out to be inconsistent with the policy; and (3) the certificate included additional text broadly disclaiming the certificate’s ability to “amend, extend or alter the coverage afforded by” the policy. The Washington Supreme Court responded yes: an insurance company is bound by the representation of its agent in the circumstances presented by the federal court. “Otherwise, an insurance company’s representations would be meaningless and it could mislead without consequence.” View "T-Mobile USA, Inc. v. Selective Ins. Co. of Am." on Justia Law