“Normally, we would begin by . . . ” — departures from the usual analytical framework on appeal

Any time a Court of Appeal decision starts its analysis with “normally,” you should sit up and take notice. It gives you a hint that the case may suggest ways for you to depart slightly from the normal analytical framework when the right case presents itself.

This time, the tip comes from Liberty Mutual Ins. Co. v.  Brookfield Crystal Cove, LLC, case no. G046731 (4th Dist., August 28, 2013, modified September 26, 2013). The plaintiff was an insurer that sued a contractor in subrogation to recover costs for its insured’s relocation expenses incurred while repairs were being made to property damage resulting from construction defects. The contractor successfully demurred on the ground that the complaint was barred by the limitations period in the Right to Repair Act (Civ. Code, § 895 et seq.). On appeal, the insurer contended that the Right to Repair Act did not abrogate common law remedies for construction defects resulting in actual property damage.

The case presents a straight-up question of statutory construction: is the Right to Repair Act the exclusive remedy for construction defects that result in property damage?

Typically, one begins analysis of statutory construction with the language of the statute itself, but Liberty Mutual suggests there may be cases where the most persuasive argument may be to start elsewhere:

The issue before us is whether Liberty Mutual’s complaint in subrogation falls exclusively within the Right to Repair Act, and therefore is time-barred. We start with a brief history of the Act and identification of the problem it was intended to address. Normally, we would begin by analyzing the language of the statute. In this case, however, the language of the statute can be best considered with an understanding of the Act‟s impetus and purpose.

(Emphasis added, footnote omitted.)

Here, what made the legislative history such an attractive starting point for the appellant and the court was that the intent to overturn case law was explicitly stated in a committee report on the bill. From there, it was easy to explain the limited intent of the statute and prevent a broader application that would require dismissal of the appellant’s complaint. The judgment of dismissal was reversed.

Lesson learned: just because there are particular analytical rules that usually apply, don’t feel hidebound.