COVID-19 construction issues

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The COVID-19 pandemic and accompanying government orders have led to major disruptions in the construction industry in Michigan. 

Although some critical projects continued during the stay-at-home order, most were idled until May 7. This and related interruptions will undoubtedly lead to disputes among owners, contractors and subcontractors regarding how to handle the resulting delays and cost overruns.

Dealing with delays

During the initial weeks of Michigan’s “Stay Home, Stay Safe” orders, delays were inevitable for most projects. Owners, contractors and subcontractors should all review their contracts for provisions dealing with delay. 

Contracts will often differentiate between delay caused by the owner or contractor. Most COVID-19 delays, though, have been caused by circumstances outside either party’s control  — — namely, a government order prohibiting work from proceeding. Many standard form contracts contain a “force majeure” provision to deal with these sorts of unavoidable interruptions, although the contract might not use those precise words. 

If there is no force majeure provision, terms addressing compliance with legal requirements also may provide relief. Each party should review its contracts for these provisions and note whether any notice to the other party or parties is required.

Since most work has resumed, contractors and subcontractors  now may be in a better position to quantify the anticipated delay. Consider sending an updated notice to add more detail about the anticipated delays, along with other issues that may have arisen since the initial notice. 

Owners should carefully review any lease agreements for the property and any loan documents that may be impacted by delays in completion. For lease agreements, review provisions that apply to the completion of construction and what rights the tenant may have to terminate the lease if construction is not completed in a timely manner. 

Leases also may have force majeure provisions permitting extensions in certain circumstances. Make sure all notice requirements in the force majeure clause are followed. There is no such thing as over-communication in this case.

Cost increases

Supply chains for construction materials have and continue to be disrupted by factory shutdowns, which may result in significant cost increases and delivery delays. Contractors and subcontractors should each review their contract documents for any terms related to material cost increases and identify which party bears the burden of increased costs. Some contracts contain price escalation provisions that allow the contractor or subcontractor to seek reimbursement of increased materials costs from the owner or general contractor.

Mitigation of damages

Every party to a contract, construction or otherwise, has a duty to mitigate its damages when a loss occurs. A contractor experiencing material supply chain disruption should take steps to find an alternate source of supply if possible, communicate with the owner or general contractor about its efforts and document all such efforts in case of a later dispute.

Preparing for defaults

The delays and cost increases discussed above are bound to slow even those projects that did not stop completely. Not all owners and contractors will be able to withstand the disruption, and some will inevitably default on contracts or fail completely. It is critical for contractors, subcontractors and materials suppliers to ensure that their lien rights are protected. 

Review all projects to ensure that notices of furnishing have been properly issued, and review and follow your internal controls for tracking the tight deadlines to file your claim of lien and/or foreclose on the lien. Likewise, owners should carefully review and track sworn statements to avoid the surprise claim of an unpaid subcontractor.

Finally, all parties to a construction contract should stay in constant communication with each other regarding the status of work. All parties should also carefully document any issues related to delay, cost increases and mitigation of damages so that if a dispute does arise later, they will be well equipped to defend it. 

With proper communication and cooperation among all parties, many disputes can be avoided at the outset.

Andrea J. Bernard and Emily S. Rucker are litigators at the law firm of Warner Norcross + Judd LLP who focus their practice on the construction industry. They can be reached at abernard@wnj.com and erucker@wnj.com.

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