Imagine that you’ve just moved into a newly constructed home in charming Greenwich, Connecticut, constructed by a builder or developer. From the outside, the house looks wonderful, just as it had been promised by the builder in the glossy brochures and pamphlets.
But after a couple weeks of living in your new home, you begin to notice major issues. The bedroom door falls off its hinges. The bathroom windows are cracked. And the basement smells like gas.
These sorts of defects can be all-too-common for new construction. They can significantly lower the value of your home for resale purposes, and also make living there unpleasant or unsafe. How can you recover against a Connecticut builder or developer for such defects?
Building a house is ordinarily a formal arrangement, particularly if it's within a new planned community. Your builder or developer surely gave you extensive materials describing your new property.
You would have needed to sign a contract outlining your payment and the builder's promise to construct the home.
If you have to file a lawsuit against the builder, part of your claim will be that it breached this agreement – did not give you the building that it promised it would. Here, all of the materials the builder gave you, including photos, descriptions of the home, plans and drawings, and emails describing the work, will be useful to establishing your expectations at the time you entered into the contract.
For example, if the various documents clearly show that you thought you were getting a home with marble floors, and the floors are wood, this demonstrates the builder’s breach.
Connecticut has a six-year statute of limitations for breach of contract, pursuant to C.G.S.A. § 52-576. This means that claims based on a contract with the builder must be brought within this period, or they are barred. However, discovery of the defect can toll the limitation period in some situations. When a homeowner could not have reasonably discovered the existence of the breach until after the six-year period – for example, if the roof caves in after seven years because the builder used low-quality wood and the homeowner couldn’t have reasonably known – a court might allow the action to proceed.
Breach of contract isn't the only possible basis upon which to sue your builder or developer. Another is ordinary negligence; in this context, the builder’s failure to exercise the correct standard of care in building your home.
In Connecticut, in order to establish a claim for negligence, the person filing suit must establish that 1) a particular duty was imposed on the builder or developer by law; 2) the builder failed to conform to that legally imposed standard; 3) there was a causal link between the failure to meet the standard of care and the resulting construction defect; and 4) you suffered actual economic damages as a result of the injury to your home.
Note that Connecticut has a two-year statute of limitations (a deadline on when you can file suit) for property damage caused by negligence under C.G.S.A. § 52-584.
An important aspect of construction defect litigation in Connecticut is the Statute of Repose for improvements to real property, C.G.S.A. § 52-584. Under this legislation, homeowners have seven years from the substantial completion (or the last specific act or omission of the builder) to file suit. After the builder has been “off the job” for seven years, a homeowner is generally barred from filing a lawsuit for an alleged construction defect, regardless of when the defect was or is discovered.
This is different from many states, where the limitation period can be further tolled (or delayed) based on when the homeowner discovers the existence of the defect. This statute is meant to give certainty to builders, so that they need not worry about claims after seven years have gone by. As a homeowner, this means that you essentially have an “ultimate deadline” to file your lawsuit: seven years after the completion of construction of your home.
There are a few clauses to watch out for in your contract before filing your lawsuit. First, it is common in construction contracts, in Connecticut and elsewhere, to find a dispute resolution clause.
That clause may say that you were required to go to mediation with your builder or developer before filing your lawsuit. In this context, mediation is a facilitated negotiation for settlement, led by a third-party neutral individual. Often, that individual will have some experience with construction law, engineering, or building development.
Your contract may also contain an arbitration clause. This clause would require that you go to arbitration against the builder or developer, instead of litigation in a court of law. In arbitration, either one or three individuals – again, typically with experience in construction – will render a final determination on your dispute. The advantage of arbitration is that it is typically quicker than litigation, saving you money on legal fees. A potential disadvantage, however, is that the arbitrator's decisions generally cannot be appealed.
Finally, take note of any aspects of the contract that shorten your statute of limitations or ability to make claims. It is not uncommon that construction contracts will shorten the amount of time that you have to file a legal claim against your builder. An attorney with experience in construction defect litigation in Connecticut will be able to carefully review the document for these sorts of limitations and help strategize how to best seek compensation from your builder or developer.