Update: Read what happened when the case was remanded here.
On March 14, 2012 the Supreme Court of Ohio decided Jones v. Centex Homes, 2012-Ohio-1001. The sole issue the Court decided is “whether a home buyer can waive his right to enforce a home builder’s legal duty to construct a house in a workmanlike manner.” In a unanimous decision written by Justice Pfeifer, the Court held that this right cannot be waived. Justice Cupp concurred in judgment only.
Paul Jones and Latosha Sanders bought a new house from Centex Homes. (Another couple, Eric and Ginger Estep, brought a lawsuit against Centex with identical issues. The two suits were consolidated, and both couples are appellants here). After the plaintiffs moved in, they found that their electronic equipment didn’t work right. They alleged that the reason was because the metal joists in the house were magnetized.
The contract that plaintiffs signed contained provisions that waived all warranties except specific express warranties provided in a separate Limited Home Warranty Booklet that was held by Centex. The trial court granted summary judgment to Centex, finding that the plaintiffs had waived all warranties except the express warranties specifically enumerated in the Limited Home Warranty, which did not cover magnetized joists. The Tenth District Court of Appeals affirmed the decision of the trial court, holding that a waiver of the implied duty to construct a house in workmanlike manner was permissible so long as it was conspicuous, unambiguous, and fully disclosed.
The parties did not dispute the fact that the purchase contracts contained provisions that waived all warranties except those contained in a Limited Warranty Booklet. At oral argument and in the briefs the two sides fundamentally disagreed about the validity and enforceability of these waivers and of the express limited warranties. On this point, the Court held that it saw no “legal impediment” to this kind of arrangement, but it did not decide the case on this basis. That may be why the decision was unanimous.
The other point of significant disagreement, and the one on which the Court did decide the case, was whether the legal requirement to build a house in a workmanlike manner was an implied warranty or a tort duty. Counsel for Centex agued throughout that the requirement to build a house in a workmanlike manner was an implied warranty (and waivable) while the lawyer for the home buyers argued this was a tort duty (and not waivable). In siding with the home buyers on this issue, the Court made it clear that the requirement at issue here was a tort duty.
In some of its earlier precedential cases, the Court was not as clear as it could have been with tort and warranty language. But now, there is no doubt that the duty to construct a house in a workmanlike manner is a tort duty imposed by law, and that this duty cannot be waived.
As my first year torts students well know, when there is a question of whether a duty exists at all, that is a question of law for the Court. And when the Court concludes, as did Justice Pfeifer in this case that “a duty to construct houses in a workmanlike manner using ordinary care is imposed by law on all home builders”, that is common law negligence language, pure and simple. “The duty does not require builders to be perfect, but it does establish a standard of care below which builders may not fall without being subject to liability, even if a contract with the buyer purports to relieve the builder of that duty,” wrote Pfeifer.
The home buyers did not win their cases. They just got the chance to prove them. Now it’s up to a jury.
A home builder’s duty to construct a house in a workmanlike manner using ordinary care is a duty imposed by law, and a home buyer’s right to enforce that duty cannot be waived. (Velotta v. Leo Petronzio Landscaping, Inc., 69 Ohio St.2d 376, 433 N.E.2d 147 (1982), paragraph one of the syllabus, and Mitchem v. Johnson, 7 Ohio St.2d 66, 218 N.E.2d594 (1966), paragraph three of the syllabus, clarified and followed.
I thought a majority of the Court was going to buy the homebuilders’ arguments in this case, although when I went back and read my post, I saw that Justices Pfeifer, McGee Brown, Lanzinger and Stratton were sympathetic to the home buyers at the argument. As a torts professor and former plaintiffs’ lawyer, I applaud the court’s decision and reasoning.