When a breach of a building contract occurs, the damages can be extensive because the breach can have an impact on the performance of other parts of the contract. For this reason, a unique aspect of construction disputes is the potential award of what are called “impact” costs or damages.
In the recent decision of the Quebec Court of Appeal in Dawcolectric inc. c. Hydro-Québec, the court awarded impact damages against the owner, even though those damages had been suffered by the subcontractor. In the course of its judgment the Court of Appeal also addressed a number of other construction law issues.
Hydro-Quebec contracted with a general contractor Dawco which granted a subcontract to a subcontractor Solimec which did most of the work on the project. Over 400 change orders were issued by the owner and substantial delays were encountered on the project. The general contractor brought a claim for damages against Hydro-Quebec. The trial judge found that the delays were caused 60 percent by Hydro-Quebec and 40 percent by the contractor. The trial judge found that the collective corporate conduct of Hydro-Quebec amounted to a breach of contract. The trial judge dismissed Dawco’s claim for the impact damages suffered by the subcontractor, Solimec.
Hydro-Quebec appealed on the grounds that it could only be liable for acts of its employees, and there was no such thing as a breach of contract by the corporation without a specific act of an employee amounting to a breach. The contractor appealed from the trial judge’s failure to award impact damages.
Decision of the Quebec Court of Appeal
The Court of Appeal upheld the trial judge’s finding that Hydro-Quebec had, by the collective conduct of its employees, breached the contract. It was not necessary to identify a specific breach of contract arising from an individual employee’s conduct for the court to conclude that, in totality, the owner had breached the contract.
The Court of Appeal held that the trial judge erred in failing to award Dawco the amount of impact damages that had been suffered by Solimec and included in Dawco’s claim.
First, while the contract between Dawco and Solimec was styled as an “Entente de rémunération du risqué” (or “risk reward contract”), nevertheless Solimec was a subcontractor of Dawco. Therefore, the general principle applied that the work done by Solimec was work done by Dawco for Hydro-Quebec and recoverable by Dawco under the main contract with Hydro-Quebec.
Second, the fact that the limitation period had expired for Solimec to claim those costs from Dawco was irrelevant and was not a defence for Hydro-Quebec to Dawco’s claim. The limitation period for Dawco’s claim against Hydro-Quebec had not expired when Dawco commenced its action. Therefore, Dawco could assert its claim to those costs against Hydro-Quebec, including any claim arising from the work done by Solimec.
Third, the costs in question were in fact and law “impact costs” and not “indirect costs” as contemplated by the change orders. Indirect costs are costs for items like site administration, bonding costs, water and electricity servicing costs, demobilization, etc. They are sometimes called general or project costs.
The costs in question here were the costs of: extra technical and supervisory personnel and additional equipment, over and above those that had been forecast for the work, which became necessary due to the delays and changes demanded by Hydro-Quebec. According to definitions accepted by the Court of Appeal, these costs fall within the concept of “impact costs,” being additional costs resulting from the impact of change order upon the performance of the contract. The Court of Appeal accepted that impact costs are normally the responsibility of the contractor, but they can become the responsibility of the owner when the owner by its conduct becomes liable for damages in a contractual or non-contractual claim.
When negotiating the change orders, Hydro-Quebec had insisted that the only amounts that could be included were costs directly arising from the modification of the work, and specifically excluded from the negotiations of the change orders any consideration of impact and the retarding of the project. In those circumstances, the Court of Appeal held that those costs were not included within the change orders and the change orders could not bar a claim for impact costs associated with those changes.
Accordingly, the Court of Appeal allowed Dawco’s claim for impact costs and awarded 60% of those costs to Dawco.
The Court of Appeal confirmed the trial judge’s award of 13.76% for overhead and profit. Dawco and Solimec led evidence to establish that their historic overhead and profit during the period 1999 to 2005 amounted to 13.76% of their costs. In addition, the contract itself referred to overhead and profit of 15% in another clause in the contract, which was not applicable to the present case. Hydro-Quebec pointed out that Solimec had only anticipated overhead and profit of 4.95%. Nevertheless, the court held that 13.76% was reasonable in the circumstances.
The Court of Appeal allowed in part the appeal by Hydro-Quebec. It set aside the award of additional financial costs allegedly incurred by Dawco. It held that Dawco was, after all, 40% responsible for the delays, and furthermore Dawco was by its decision receiving substantial compensation for its actual losses. After a lengthy review of the facts, the court held that Hydro-Quebec was not at fault such that Dawco’s additional financial costs should be the responsibility of Hydro-Quebec.
The Court of Appeal also allowed Hydro-Quebec’s appeal with respect to Dawco’s claim for damage to reputation, loss of the opportunity to obtain other business and other inconveniences. It pointed out that the trial judge had dismissed Dawco’s claim for punitive damages on the ground that Hydro-Quebec had not purposefully engaged in wrongful conduct. The court concluded that there was no proof of causation between these alleged losses and any wrongful conduct of Hydro-Quebec that had not already been properly compensated, and that these losses were uncertain and unforeseeable.
This decision contains a potpourri of issues which are important for construction law. One of the most interesting is that of impact damages: what are impact damages; what sort of clause can eliminate a claim for impact damages; what sort of conduct and documentation during the issuance of change orders can eliminate a claim for impact damages, or allow it to survive?
In this case, the Court of Appeal of Quebec held that the contractor’s claim for impact damages was not excluded by the contract. Nor was that claim excluded by the change order process because the owner had specifically directed that impact costs were not to be included in the change order process. Accordingly, the claim for impact damage was allowable under the contract because they fell within a recognized category of recoverable damage, and the claim had not been nullified by the change order process.
The parties could have agreed to include impact costs in each change order, although the total impact costs arising from all change orders would have been difficult to assess when negotiating each change order. Hydro-Quebec could have taken the position that no impact costs arose from the change orders. In either case, Hydro-Quebec could have then required Dawco to sign a release for any further impact costs arising from the change order process. In those circumstances, Dawco’s claim for impact damages would not have survived. However, Dawco would presumably not have accepted that arrangement if it wished to preserve a claim for those costs, particularly one arising from the cumulative effect of change orders.
This decision shows the importance of the negotiation process and the wording of change orders to the viability of a later claim by the contractor for impact costs. Since those costs may arise from many change orders and usually cannot be determined from any single change order, the owner and contractor must be alive to the potential existence of those costs and how they are to be determined.
See Heintzman and Goldsmith on Canadian Building Contracts, 5th ed., chapter, part 6(f)
Dawcolectric inc. c. Hydro-Québec (2014), 32 C.L.R. (4th) 183, 2014 CarswellQue 4600
Building contracts – Damages – Impact Costs – Delays – Change Order Process
Thomas G. Heintzman O.C., Q.C., FCIArb June 1, 2015