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Action for damages; breach of building contract. Bibb Civil Court. Before Judge Butler. December 20, 1957.
1. Where a defendant is sued for an alleged breach of a building contract in that the construction is not according to the specifications therein, and the defendant pleads and offers evidence to show that the departure from the terms of the contract, although it resulted in damage to the plaintiff, is not actionable because authorized by an agent for the plaintiff and that the latter ratified his agent's acts, it is not error to charge that the burden rests upon the defendants to establish the truth of such affirmative defense by a preponderance of the evidence.
2. The evidence in this case presented a contested issue as to the authority of the agent, as well as ratification of the latter's acts on the part of the principal, and accordingly authorized a charge submitting this question to the jury.
3. Where evidence is offered, a part of which is admissible and another part inadmissible, an objection to the whole is not sufficiently definite to form the basis of an assignment of error.
4. Parol testimony that certain provisions not appearing in the contract as such were incorporated therein by reference would be subject to objection, but where no such objection is offered, it is not error to admit the evidence and thereafter refuse a requested charge that the testimony is not before the jury for consideration.
C. H. Sheftall filed an action for damages for breach of contract in the Civil Court of Bibb County against R. L. and E. F. Johnson and the surety on their bond, Employers' Liability Assurance Corporation, Ltd., alleging that the defendants had contracted with the plaintiff to build and had built and delivered to him a house; that the plaintiff had complied with all his obligations under the contract; that the defendants had failed to comply with certain of the specifications attached to and made a part of the building contract, particularly in regard to the construction of the chimney, and as a result the plaintiff sustained a large amount of water damage due to rain water entering around the chimney on several occasions after he moved into the house. The defendants were notified and made efforts to correct the damage which proved ineffectual. The defendants' surety was then called upon to perform. Eventually the plaintiff hired another firm to correct the construction work and repair the areas damaged by rain water, the amount spent for this purpose being his alleged measure of damages, and the plaintiff also sought the recovery of attorney's fees in this action on the ground that the defendants had been stubbornly litigious and caused him unnecessary trouble and expense. Special demurrers attacking the petition on the ground that no facts were alleged authorizing an award of attorney's fees were overruled.
On the trial the evidence on behalf of the plaintiff was to the effect that he had employed an architect who had supervised the construction of the house; that the chimney had been improperly constructed in the first instance and on this fact being pointed out the defendants rebuilt it in a larger size to accord with the specifications; that after it was rebuilt it was defective in several respects, one of which was that metal flashing had not been put around it as required; that an architect cannot actually cover every detail and that the witness who was employed as architect by the owner did not notice this at the time; that the house when finally completed, was accepted by the owner and architect and the balance of payment made; that shortly after the owner moved in, and at the first heavy rain, it appeared that there were bad leaks around the chimney due to its faulty construction contrary to the specifications made a part of the building contract; that both the owner and architect several times notified the defendants as to the defect and called upon them to remedy the defects; that the defendants sent workmen around on several occasions but never did cure the leak and finally ceased their efforts, merely leaving a tarpaulin over the chimney. There was evidence that the defects had been cured by another company employed by the plaintiff, and the cost of this work. The jury returned a verdict for the plaintiff in the amount sued for including $250 as attorney's fees. A motion for new trial containing by amendment 22 special grounds was denied, and this judgment is assigned as error.
1. The plaintiff having in his petition alleged a breach of a building contract in certain specified particulars, and the defendant in his answer having denied the breach of contract and having also alleged: "These defendants further show that all of said construction was in accordance with, at the instructions of and under the approval of said architect and these defendants are completely released from any liability, having built it in accordance with the instructions of plaintiff's agent," two defensive issues were raised. One was a mere denial that the construction had not been according to contract as alleged by the plaintiff, and the other was a defense, supported by some evidence, that the architect approved the chimney in the condition in which it was actually built, although not in accordance with the specifications, and that the owner ratified all acts of the architect by giving him complete authority to agree to changes in specifications. Under the pleadings and evidence, accordingly, it was not error for the court to charge: "Where the defendants plead and set up an affirmative defense the burden rests upon such defendants to establish the truth of such affirmative defense by a preponderance of the evidence adduced upon the trial of the case." Here the plaintiff made out a prima facie case by the introduction of evidence showing that the defendant had not built the chimney according to the building specifications attached to and made a part of the contract, and that as a result thereof damage occurred. The defendant was then entitled to, and did, offer evidence the purpose of which was to show that his failure to follow the specifications with exactitude was not actionable for the reason that it was a variance which had been acquiesced in by an agent of the plaintiff, and that the plaintiff had ratified such acquiescence on the agent's part even though it was unauthorized in the first instance. While the burden of proof remains with the plaintiff throughout the trial, the burden of evidence shifts, once the plaintiff has made out a prima facie case, to establish other facts which would negative liability on the part of the defendant. Hanover Fire Ins. Co. v. Pruitt, 59 Ga. App. 777 (2 S. E. 2d 123). McCrackin v. McKinney, 52 Ga. App. 519 (2) (183 S. E. 831). The rule of law contained in this charge is not restricted to situations in which a defendant admits a prima facie case and pleads matter in confession or avoidance, thus assuming the burden of proof. See Code 38-103. These grounds are without merit.
Where there is an issue as to whether a person is bound by the acts of another as his agent, either under original authority or by reason of ratification, it is not error to explain to the jury the rule of law as to the extent of an agent's authority. Terry v. International Cotton Co., 138 Ga. 656 (2) (75 S. E. 1044).
3. Thirteen of the special grounds of the amended motion for new trial complain of the admission in evidence of copies of as many letters addressed to the defendants and sent from the plaintiff, his wife, his architect and his attorney. As to each of the letters the following objection was made: "This letter is immaterial and irrelevant. It is self-serving in that the whole content is generally concerning what they want us to do or what we haven't done." None of the letters is entirely a self-serving declaration, in that each one constitutes proof of the allegation in the petition that notice of the defects was given to the defendants. The first letter is dated December 2, 1954, and contains a list of unfinished items. The last letter, dated January 18, 1957, is a notice from the plaintiff's attorney to the defendants demanding indemnification. The intermediate letters, spanning more than a year, notify either the defendants or their bonding company of unfinished items, probability of rain damage, extent of prior rain damage, failure of persons sent by the defendants to repair the chimney to accomplish this purpose, particulars in which the specifications had been violated, breach of a subsequent agreement by the defendants to employ a roofing expert to make an independent examination, and so forth. These letters and the testimony in support thereof demonstrate that the defendants were given immediate notice, not only of the original failure to finish the construction in a workmanlike manner, but of each subsequent item of damage caused by the long period of time during which the leaks were not fixed. In order to recover the cost of the repairs, the consequential damages resulting from rain over a period of a year, it was certainly essential to the plaintiff's case that he show attempts on his part to minimize the damage and induce the contractors to meet the obligations of the contract, which meant informing them of flaws in subsequent corrective work, warning them of probable future damages, and reporting such damage when it occurred. Some of the letters contained irrelevant matter, and some contained self-serving declarations. The general rule is that where a portion of the evidence offered is admissible and a portion inadmissible, an objection to the evidence as a whole which does not point out and limit itself to the objectionable part is not sufficient. Stringer v. Wheeler, 161 Ga. 91 (2) (129 S. E. 634); Potts v. State, 86 Ga. App. 779 (1) (72 S. E. 2d 553). For the proper procedure in such a case see Kansas City Life Ins. Co. v. Williams, 62 Ga. App. 707 (1) (9 S. E. 2d 680). Under the objections interposed, no reversible error is shown in allowing these documents in evidence.
5. The special demurrers to the petition as well as special grounds 4, 5, 15, 16 and 18 all contend that the plaintiff was improperly allowed to plead, prove and recover attorney's fees in this case. Code 20-1404 provides as follows: "The expenses of litigation are not generally allowed as a part of the damages; but if the defendant has acted in bad faith, or has been stubbornly litigious, or has caused the plaintiff unnecessary trouble and expense, the jury may allow them." The plaintiff here seeks attorney's fees on the latter two grounds. In Traders Insurance Co. v. Mann, 118 Ga. 381, 385 (45 S. E. 426) it was held: "Expenses of litigation are not allowed for bad faith in refusing to pay, but where he has acted in bad faith in the transaction and dealings out of which the cause of action arose . . . If the original contract was made in good faith, if there is an ordinary breach, if the cause of action itself is not colored or poisoned by bad faith on the part of the defendant, he will not be mulcted with additional damages because he refuses to pay. Some defendants fail to pay because they are not able, others because they are not willing, and many because they dispute the liability . . . It has long been the policy of Georgia not to require the defendant to pay the expense of obtaining a judgment against himself." In that case it was alleged that the refusal to pay according to the terms of a contract was in bad faith and for the purpose of hindering, delaying, annoying and damaging the petitioner. The case dealt with the "bad faith" element of the statute only, and said that a mere refusal to pay a debt, nothing else appearing, did not constitute bad faith under the provisions of this Code section because it refers to bad faith prior to the institution of the action and not the motive with which the suit is being defended. In O'Neal v. Spivey, 167 Ga. 176 (3) (145 S. E. 71), an equitable action, the evidence clearly showed that the defendant had failed to accept a tender which he was in law bound to accept. Attorney's fees were sought on the ground that by reason thereof the defendant "has shown a stubborn and litigious spirit." The court held: "The expenses of litigation where the defendant has acted in bad faith, or has been stubbornly litigious or has caused the plaintiff unnecessary trouble and expense, may be allowed . . . Any one of these three species of bad conduct may authorize a recovery of attorney's fees under the provisions of this Code section. Acting in bad faith, or being stubbornly litigious, or causing the plaintiff unnecessary trouble or expense might in a particular case suffice to authorize a finding for attorney's fees."
We have no doubt that if all that this record showed was a refusal on the part of the defendants to pay the cost of repairing the chimney on this house so as to conform to contract specifications, or even a mere refusal to remedy a breach of contract, this case would not set out a cause of action for attorney's fees. What the pleadings and proof do show, however, is far beyond this. A finding was authorized that when it was pointed out to the defendants that the work was substandard they entered into various agreements, first to repair it, then to get an independent expert examination of it, and that they failed or refused to perform on each occasion; that because of their conduct the plaintiff continued to suffer additional consequential damage which occurred on several occasions and over a period of more than a year; that he was restrained from having the work corrected by others in the first instance because of the defendants, and that the defendants never did correct the work, never did get another to correct it, and never did give the plaintiff authority to have it corrected himself, even after they abandoned all efforts of their own. The evidence further shows that the defect in the chimney was correctable and was properly fixed by persons finally employed by the plaintiff. There is no reason shown why the defendants did not accomplish the same thing, either through their own employees or by subcontracting with another. As a result of this conduct, most of the damage arose, caused by water seeping in, cracking and rotting the woodwork, plaster, painting, and flooring. Accordingly, this course of conduct on the part of the defendants certainly put the plaintiff to additional trouble and expense. The attorney's fees were not sought or awarded on the basis of bad faith, for which reason nothing in Traders Insurance Co. v. Mann, 118 Ga. 381, supra, applies here. The trial court properly overruled the special demurrers to the petition and submitted the issue of attorney's fees to the jury.
The trial court did not err in denying the motion for new trial.
Miller, Miller & Miller, Lawton Miller, contra.
Martin, Snow, Grant & Napier, for plaintiffs in error.
Saturday May 23 01:13 EDT

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