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Attorneys sorting out condo construction defect litigations

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What seems like a recent rash of problems with the construction of condominiums has been around awhile, according to one local lawyer.

And it should be getting more attention.

"I don't think the public realizes how much is at stake with construction defect liability," said attorney Bryan Garrie, of Epsten Grinnell & Howell APC. "We're talking major defects that don't allow the building to function as intended."

Buying a condo, he added, "is the biggest investment of their lives, and yet the Legislature is being lobbied by the building industry to cut back on construction defect liability."

At least four San Diego condos, including three downtown, have dealt with or are currently dealing with the issue of construction defects.

Garrie is representing the homeowners association of CityFront Terrace, a 321-unit building in downtown San Diego, which has filed a lawsuit claiming defects in design and construction. The building has systemwide plumbing problems and water intrusion through the plaza deck and windows.

The Pacific Regent condos experienced similar water intrusion problems and had to have its entire exterior, or "building envelope," rebuilt. A case was brought, and the combined recovery between trial verdict and settlement was $19.7 million.

Claims also were made against the Watermark's construction, and a $11.6 million settlement was reached.

Scott Silber, who represents the defendants in the CityFront case and is with the firm Balestreri, Pendleton & Potocki , said each case is unique and can't be compared.

"We're still in the early phase of discovery," he said of the CityFront lawsuit, which isn't scheduled to go to trial until March 2006. "We're just learning about what the allegations are and our consultants/experts are just getting an opportunity to inspect the project.

"We do not want to draw any conclusions yet," Silber said.

Garrie feels it's an industrywide problem involving the design and construction of the building envelope, which consists of the roof, exterior walls and windows and the foundation of a building.

"There's a disconnect between the architect and the contractors when it comes to building envelope technology," Garrie said. "It's not an area of focus. The nuts and bolts of water intrusion protection don't get addressed. No one is making sure that the building envelope endures."

John Wayne Construction, which was the contractor on the Watermark repairs, said the problems aren't as severe as in the 1970s, when developers eschewed care in favor of speed.

"Builders have woken up," he said. "They're realizing that providing incorrect product only causes problems in the future. There's better quality control.

"There's not any magic to what we do. We just repair really simplistic mistakes."

Tom Halliwell, a lawyer with Chapman Glucksman & Dean also representing the defendant in the CityFront suit, doesn't think the latest trend is an epidemic.

"There's a lot of new construction going on and a number of lawsuits have been filed," Halliwell said. "Some have merit and some don't.

"Laws in California do tend to favor the homeowner and that tends to make lawsuits resolve for higher amounts, and makes housing more expensive."

The period in which lawsuits can be filed also makes it harder for the building industry, Halliwell said.

"There's a very long statute of limitations associated with construction defect liability, essentially 10 years," he said. "It's difficult to go back and find witnesses for a project that was completed almost 12 years ago. That has an impact on our ability to investigate cases and find out what happened."

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