A lawyer explaining A Res Judicata Defense Won’t Apply in Separate Homeowner Suits Against Contractor and Subcontractor

A Res Judicata Defense Won’t Apply in Separate Homeowner Suits Against Contractor and Subcontractor

“Res Judicata” or “a matter judged” is the concept that a cause of action cannot be relitigated once it has been adjudged on the merits. For example, a losing plaintiff cannot re-sue a prevailing defendant on the same claims. In order to use a res judicata defense a party must prove four “identities”: (1) identity of the thing sued for; (2) identity of the cause of action; (3) identity of persons and parties to the action; and (4) identity of the quality of the persons for or against whom the claim is made.

But what happens if a homeowner sues a subcontractor, obtains a judgment in its favor, and now goes after the contractor? Can the doctrine of Res Judicata protect the contractor? A recent Florida case says “No.”

In Pickell v. Lennar Homes, LLC, 48 Pickell v. Lennar Homes, 2023 Fla. App. LEXIS 7223, 48 Fla. L. Weekly D 2037 (Fla. 6th DCA 2023), a homeowner initiated separate suits against a mechanical subcontractor and the contractor itself, alleging nearly identical claims. After the homeowner obtained a judgment against the subcontractor, the contractor moved for summary judgment, arguing that the homeowner’s claims against the contractor were barred under the doctrine of Res Judicata, based on the overlapping claims and damages. The trial court agreed. However, on appeal, the newly formed Florida Sixth District Court of Appeal reversed, finding that the contractor couldn’t satisfy the third identity of a proper Res Judicata defense, noted above – “identity of the parties”.

Critically, even though the contractor and subcontractor had a contractual relationship – i.e. “contractual privity”, the Court held that in the context of Res Judicata, the “identity of the parties” assumes a different meaning. Instead, the focus is on the parties’ shared liability. The Court found that there was no legal or contractual duty (e.g., indemnification language requiring contractor to indemnify subcontractor) that would make the contractor liable for the homeowner’s judgment against the subcontractor.

But this does not mean the homeowner gets to “double dip” – even if a homeowner pursues separate actions, the homeowner is barred from collecting twice from both contractor and subcontractor for essentially the same damages. Instead, any recovery from the subcontractor would be “set off” post-judgment from any potential future judgment against the contractor. Here, the subcontractor’s judgment was satisfied, entitling the contractor to set-off that amount should the homeowner ultimately prevail against the contractor and obtain a judgment in its favor.

Lawsuits involving homeowners, contractors and subcontractors can be a complex issue. Due to these complexities, it is important to strategize the best claim and/or defenses. The attorneys at Soto Law Group, P.A. are equipped with the experience, knowledge, and expertise to handle this subject. If you require assistance with any construction or contract legal problems you might be facing, please contact us.

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