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Not Too Slender a Thread – Supreme Court decision in MT Højgaard v E.ON

10 August 2017
By Michael Hayes

The Supreme Court has upheld an appeal concerning liability to comply with fitness for purpose obligations in a design and build contract, in a case with significant ramifications for policyholders involved in construction projects. The judgment highlights the difficulties which arise when accepted industry practices are exposed as inadequate and reinforces the importance of precise drafting of contract terms, and associated policy wordings, given the literal interpretation likely to be applied notwithstanding potentially harsh consequences for unwary contractors.

The dispute arose from a significant error in an international standard for the design of offshore wind turbines known as J101. The contractor, MT Højgaard (“MTH”), relied on J101 whilst engaged by E.ON to design, fabricate and install foundations for the Robin Rigg wind farm in the Solway Firth, Scotland. Following completion of the works, it was discovered that J101 contained an inaccuracy such that the load-bearing capacity of grouted connections had been substantially over-estimated, resulting in remedial works at a cost of €26 million.

In April 2014, the trial judge held that MTH was liable to E.ON because the foundations were not fit for purpose, in breach of a provision in the Technical Requirements section of the Employer’s Requirements in the contract which imposed an obligation that the design “shall ensure a lifetime of 20 years in every aspect without planned replacement”. This provision applied in addition to less onerous contract terms requiring MTH to exercise reasonable skill and care, and to comply with J101.

The Court of Appeal overturned that decision, concluding that the 20 year service life provision in the Technical Requirements was qualified by compliance with J101 and good industry practice, in light of the inconsistency between that provision and other contractual terms. The relevant wording tucked away in the Technical Requirements was described as “too slender a thread” upon which to hang a finding that MTH gave a warranty of 20 years life for the foundations, viewed in context of the contractual provisions as a whole and commercial implications.

In a unanimous decision, the Supreme Court ruled that MTH was liable for breach of the fitness for purpose obligations, construed either as a warranty that the foundations (1) would have a minimum service life of 20 years, or alternatively (2) be designed to last for 20 years. The court referred to UK and Canadian authorities where contractor warranties to complete works without defects were held to override any prescribed specification, noting: “it is the contractor who can be expected to take the risk if he agreed to work to a design which would render the item incapable of meeting the criteria to which he has agreed”. J101 was expressed to be a minimum standard and the court was not prepared to disregard or give a different meaning to provisions of the Technical Requirements incorporated to the contract.

Construction contracts routinely incorporate schedules and technical documents with less than complete harmonisation as to intended legal standards of design and workmanship. The contract in this case was acknowledged to be of a “complex, diffuse and multi-authored” nature with many “ambiguities, infelicities and inconsistencies”. Nevertheless the court saw no reason to depart from the natural meaning of the fitness for purpose provisions, alongside MTH’s other obligations, in accordance with the prevailing approach of judicial non-interventionism that parties will be taken to mean what they say in their contracts (Arnold v Britton [2015] UKSC 36).

To avoid ambiguity, contracting parties should consider the inclusion of express provisions clarifying whether and how technical schedules are to affect overall obligations as to design and workmanship, clearly distinguishing requirements to exercise skill and care from performance warranties or guarantees of fitness for purpose. This in turn will allow policyholders to properly evaluate the risks assumed under the contract, and liaise with their insurance brokers to ensure adequate professional indemnity and all risks cover for potential liabilities.

MT Højgaard A/S (Respondent) v E.ON Climate & Renewables UK Robin Rigg East Limited and another (Appellants) [2017] UKSC 59

https://www.supremecourt.uk/cases/docs/uksc-2015-0115-judgment.pdf

Amy Lacey is a partner at Fenchurch Law