Rarely do you find a case that succinctly addresses a construction law issue. Today, one of my legal alerts pointed me to one such case dealing with delay damages and disruption damages. This is a must read!

In County of Galveston v. Triple B Services, LLP, decided on May 26, 2016, the Court of Appeals of Texas reviewed a contractor’s claim for damages on a road expansion project. While the legal issue focused on the County’s right rely on the defense of sovereign immunity, the Contractor’s (and it expert’s) characterization of the damages was critical to the outcome of the case. Since the applicable statute waives a county’s sovereign immunity for breach-of-contract damages that are “a direct result of owner-caused delays,” the Court had to decide whether disruption damages—as opposed to delay damages—were recoverable.

The Contract. The County entered into an agreement with the Contractor to expand a three-mile stretch of road. Under the contract, the County was responsible for moving gas, water, and fiber-optic utilities. According to the Contractor’s expert, the contract established a “baseline schedule … created by the County’s engineer,” which showed a starting date with unhindered access along the area of the road where the utilities were located. The contract allowed for “delay damages” if the Contractor’s request for those damages “is determined to be compensable.”

Owner-Related Delays. Although the Contractor’s plans for the construction project anticipated that the County would move the utilities by a particular date, those utilities were moved almost one year later. Nevertheless, the Contractor completed its work within the contract time. According to the Contractor, it incurred additional costs to hand-form manholes, set and reset barricades, extended field office overhead, as well as additional labor, equipment, street cleaning, flagging, and traffic control—all of which resulted from the County’s delays in moving the utilities.

Sovereign Immunity Argument. The County argued that Section 262.007 of the Local Government Code waives a county’s sovereign immunity for construction contracts involving claims for delay damages. Here, the County relied heavily on the testimony of the Contractor’s expert witness who testified about the Contractor’s damages resulting from the County’s delays. Since the County did not timely move the utilities as anticipated in the original construction plan, that schedule of work was “disrupted.” By seeking disruption damages, the County argued, the Contractor sought damages that were excluded from recovery under the statute.

So, are these delay damages or disruption damages?

On appeal, the Contractor agreed that its “disruption damages” do not meet the definition of “delay damages” as traditionally understood in the construction law arena. However, it argued that the statutory waiver of sovereign immunity for damages that are “a direct result of owner-caused delays or acceleration” includes more than “delay damages” as defined under construction law: “Disruption and lost productivity costs are … recoverable damages under the clear meaning of the words of the statute.”

The Court turned to the construction law bible written by Phillip Bruner and Patrick O’Connor to address the inquiry, noting that delay damages have a technical definition distinct from disruption damages:

Delay damages refer to damages “arising out of delayed completion, suspension, acceleration or disrupted performance”; these damages compensate the contracting party that is injured when a project takes longer than the construction contract specified. . . .

Disruption damages, on the other hand, are for a project that may be timely completed but nevertheless includes disruption to the contractor and compensates it for “a reduction in the expected productivity of labor and equipment—a loss of efficiency measured in reduced production of units of work within a given period of time.” . . . Disruption damages can also be caused by an “event [that] both disrupts and delays a critical path activity….” A project that finishes on time but at greater expense because of disruptive events or scheduling errors presents a claim for disruption damages.

The Court’s Decision. Based upon a plain reading of the statute, the Court concluded that Section 262.007 allows a claim for disruption damages against a county “if the disruption damages directly result from the county’s delay in performance of its contractual obligations….” Significantly, the statute did not distinguish between “delay damages” and “disruption damages” that are directly caused by the breaching party’s delay.

Lesson Learned. According to the expert in this case, the Contractor incurred significant increased costs to finish the work on time. The Court’s opinion provides an excellent roadmap of the type of expert proof required to establish the damages sought by the Contractor, including the following:

  • The expert examined the “daily summaries” of work and “the manner [the project] was intended to be executed … [and] the manner by which the project was actually executed and some of the specific things that caused that deviation.”
  • Using this information, the expert testified that the Contractor had to adjust its approach to accommodate the County’s delay by “segmenting the work into smaller segments of the roadway, waiting on the utilities … just a various sundry of impacts that caused them to not be as productive from a direct labor standpoint.”
  • The “waiting on the utilities” caused the Contractor to waste “man-hours trying to deal with working around utilities and bouncing around back and forth and dealing with not being able to set barricades and … progress the roadway [in the way] that they thought they would be able to in an unhindered manner.”
  • The expert also testified that the Contractor had to add “a number of crews because they were working in so many different areas to try and progress the work….”
  • Finally, the expert opined that the Contractor’s clean-up crew also had to perform additional work because “whenever you slow down that progression and create situations where you’re excavating and you’re staging materials in one location[,] … you wind up with … more debris than if you were just moving in a steady progressive manner.”

Although the project in this case was finished on time and the Contractor never completely “stopped” its work, the Court readily found that the Contractor was “hindered” because of the County’s actions. Since the type of recoverable damages include those that are “a direct result of owner-caused delays,” the Contractor could recover its disruption damages.