Liability of a Parent Corporation for Construction Defects

Magnolia N. Prop. Owners Ass’n, Inc. v. HeritageComm. Inc., No. 4943.

A property owners association (POA) filed suit for construction defects in a condominium complex. Appellants are three corporations: HCI (parent corporation), HMNI (seller) and Buildstar (general contractor).  HCI created separate corporations for every development it constructed for the purpose of operating as cost centers. HMNI was the cost center for Magnolia North POA and Buildstar supervised construction at Magnolia North.            

The POA board of directors initially consisted of officers of the Appellant corporations.  During this time, unit owners discovered various construction defects. The officers assured POA members that the defects would be timely cured.  The POA filed suit after turnover of the board from the developer to the unit owners. The POA asserted causes of action of negligence, breach of express warranty, breach of warranty of workmanlike services, and breach of fiduciary duty.  The court affirmed the jury’s award of $6.5M in actual damages and $2M in punitive damages. 

Amalgamation

Amalgamation is a theory of holding a parent corporation liable in place of its subsidiary where evidence shows that corporate interests, entities and activities are blurred to the point that separate legal distinctions can be ignored.  This is not piercing the corporate veil, as fundamental unfairness and fraud are not required elements. The court compared the instant case with Kincaid v. Landing Devel. Corp. where amalgamation was found between three distinct corporations.  In the instant case, the court pointed to the following facts for upholding the trial court’s finding of amalgamation:

1.     HCI, HMNI and Buildstar “shared officers, directors, office space and a phone number”

2.     The corporations shared employees

3.     HCI held itself out to the POA as the corporation responsible for construction defects in its written warranty

 Equitable Tolling

A three-year statute of limitations applied to the POA’s causes of action. Appellants argue the statute of limitations started when construction defects were discovered, marked by the POA’s first meeting on March 8, 2000.  The court disagreed and held that the statute did not begin to run until the date of turnover.

The court relied on the recent case of Hooper v. Ebenezer Senior Svcs and Rehab. Ctr., where the supreme court described equitable tolling as a “doctrine to suspend or extend the statutory period to ensure fundamental practicality and fairness . . . It has been observed that equitable tolling typically applies in cases where a litigant was prevented from filing suit because of an extraordinary event beyond his or her control . . . To deny [equitable tolling] would permit one party to suffer a gross wrong at the hands of the other.”

The POA board consisted of the corporations’ officers until turnover, so it is unreasonable to expect that the POA would have brought suit before the homeowners gained control of the board. As soon as turnover occurred, the POA promptly filed suit.  The court upheld the trial court’s ruling on equitable tolling.

Equitable Estoppel

The Appellant corporations were equitably estopped from asserting the statute of limitations as a bar to the POA’s claim because the Appellants induced the POA’s delay in filing suite.  The court held that deceit is not an essential element of estoppel; it is enough that the party “reasonably relied on the words and conduct of the party to be estopped in allowing the limitations period to expire.”  Appellants assured the unit owners that the construction defects would be repaired, so it was reasonable for the unit owners to give the Appellants time to make good on these promises before filing suit. 

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