Mann up! High Court holds innocent party to a repudiated contract and bins alternative quantum meruit claims

For at least 115 years it has been the law in Australia that where a contract is repudiated the innocent party can recover damages either in accordance with that contract or upon a quantum meruit. Predictably, such claimants have always asked for whichever was the higher of the two available measures and this has sometimes involved shrugging off the contract price as irrelevant.

That all changed yesterday when the High Court delivered its decision in Peter Mann v Paterson Constructions [2019] HCA 32.

The seven judges delivered three judgments spanning 99 pages. In a nutshell, they  agreed that the contractual measure of damages should be the ceiling on damages and that the former long-standing position is, in the words of Keifel CJ, Bell and Keane JJ, based on “fallacious reasoning … which may give rise to serious mischief”.

In Peter Mann v Paterson Constructions, property owners contracted with a builder for the construction of two townhouses in Blackburn, Victoria. The contract price for the development was $971,000. The work was largely completed and $946,000 of the contract price had been paid before the relationship ended in acrimony with each party accusing the other of repudiation and purporting to accept such repudiation.

Their dispute then went to VCAT where Senior Member Walker held that the owners had wrongfully repudiated the contract, the builder had accepted that repudiation, the contract was at an end, and that the builder as the innocent party was entitled to recover damages calculated by reference to the market value of the building work and labour delivered to the owners. He assessed that value at $1.6 m.

After allowance for the $946,000 already paid, he held that the builder was entitled to damages from the owners of $660,000. Hence the bottom line financially at VCAT was that the owners were liable to  the builder for about 165 per cent of the original contract price because of their repudiation of that contract.

The owners appealed unsuccessfully to a single judge of the Supreme Court and then to the Court of Appeal before winning seven judges to nil in the High Court.

Following  yesterday’s decision, where a building contract in Australia (or other contract for work and labour done) is terminated for repudiation or breach, damages for breach of that contract will generally be the sole remedy.

What now? The High Court has remitted  Mann  back to VCAT for its recomputation of the builder’s damages. More than three years after he first heard the matter, that recalculation might be done by Senior Member Walker as the owners’ submission to the High Court that he should not hear the remitter was rejected.

The wash-up? Three thoughts occur to me.

First, the High Court’s decision will be big news for building and construction lawyers,  as it overturns a century of established law. But it won’t be a big surprise to those who remember Sopov v Kane [2009] VSCA 141 in which Victoria’s Court of Appeal unanimously expressed sympathy for the owners’ predicament in a similar case but nevertheless found for the builder on the basis that treating repudiated contracts as a ceiling on quantum meruit claims was “a step which the High Court alone can take”.

Second, until yesterday builders and others stuck in unprofitable contracts had a powerful financial incentive to terminate for breach by their counterparty in the expectation that they would be able to reprice their work retrospectively with a quantum meruit claim in the subsequent litigation. That financial escape route has just been soundly shut by the High Court.

Third, the decision is also bad news for quantity surveyors. Demand for their expert evidence as to the ‘as built’ value of construction works is likely to take a hit.

1 thought on “Mann up! High Court holds innocent party to a repudiated contract and bins alternative quantum meruit claims

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