California's Fifth Appellate District Declares The "Right To Repair Act" The Exclusive Remedy For Construction Defect Claims

Construction Law E-Alert (August 2015)

August 26, 2015 - The Fifth Appellate District ruled SB800 (California's "Right to Repair Act" [the "Act"]) provides the sole remedy for homeowners in construction defect actions. The court found "no other cause of action is allowed to recover for repair of the defect itself or for repair of any damage caused by the defect." (McMillin Albany LLC v. Superior Court of California (Aug. 26, 2015, No. F069370) __ Cal.App.4th __ [2015 WL 5029324].) The court issued a blistering criticism of the Fourth Appellate District's prior opinion in Liberty Mutual Ins. Co. v. Brookfield Crystal Cove LLC (2013) 219 Cal.App.4th 98, which severely limited the reach of the Act to actions not involving property damage and allowing property damage claims to proceed freely under common law without any constraints posed by the Act. 

In McMillin, the court reviewed whether a homeowner was required to follow the Act's prelitigation procedures even after dismissing a cause of action arising under the Act. In deciding the issue, the court quoted directly from the first line of the Act (Civ. Code § 896) and found "[i]n any action seeking recovery of damages arising out of, or related to deficiencies in, the residential construction … , the claimant's claims or causes of action shall be limited to violation of" the standards set out in the Act. The court recognized the statutory exceptions to this rule, such as for claims arising under contract, or any action for fraud, personal injuries, or statutory violations. (Civ. Code., § 943.) However, this result directly conflicts with the Fourth Appellate District's decision in Liberty Mutual, which found homeowners can circumvent the entire Act by simply alleging property damage claims. McMillin rejects Liberty Mutual's "reasoning and outcome" as being inconsistent with the express language of the Act. 

McMillin found that Liberty Mutual failed to fully analyze the statutory language of the Act, which (on its face) limits any action for construction deficiencies to the requirements of the Act. McMillin concludes the Legislature intended that all construction defect actions (for new residences sold on or after January 1, 2003), are subject to the requirements of the Act, including the prelitigation procedures, regardless of whether a complaint expressly alleges a cause of action under the Act or not. 

McMillin is a great victory for homebuilders, but battle lines are now clearly drawn between the two appellate districts. McMillin directly conflicts with Liberty Mutual, and because of this conflict, the issue will need to be resolved by the California Supreme Court. Until such review is granted, the conflict will remain and trial courts will likely continue to conflate the issue.

Stephen A. Sunseri represents real estate developers, contractors, and subcontractors in construction defect litigation.  For more information, please contact GD&B directly at: 760.431.9501.