Managing the Legal Risks of Green Buildings

Posted on August 23, 2010 by Joseph Manko

As with “green washing” of products, which are subject to existing product liability law, there is an emerging area of law regarding liability for claims that a building marketed as “green” or alleged to achieve the desired platinum, gold, silver or standard Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) certification has failed to do so.

As the LEED requirements and techniques for sustainable development become better understood and more widely adapted, more and more developers are seeking to build “green.” To the extent that the construction costs permit a manageable return on investment (ROI) and the specifications and requirements for such development are clearly spelled out in the various contractual documents, including especially the agreement with architects, we will likely see more and more claims that the resultant buildings are “green.”

Although some theories of liability will track areas in construction law, e.g., deficiencies in design, construction or installation, green buildings claims will face an additional layer of risk. Without such statutory coverage, cf strict product liability, today’s bases for liability may include breach of contract, tort, fraud and false advertising claims.

For example, in the Maryland case of Shaw Development v. Southern Builders, which was settled without an opinion, the loss of a tax credit based upon compliance with a LEED Silver certification level led to a claim of liability.

The best way to mitigate these risks is to ensure that all contractual documents are clear and consistent, project management is assured, information disclosures are accurate, and finally that insurance coverage, where available, is provided. With regard to documents, AIA form contract B214-2007 has been developed to provide some model contractual language; more than forty insurance carriers are now underwriting green building liability; and in many law firms, some of their attorneys and other technical people have become LEED accredited.

This is an area that will continue to develop as more and more green buildings are constructed. For more in-depth information on potential liability and tips to mitigate claims, see the Harvard Law School Environmental Law & Policy Clinic White Paper, “The Green Building Revolution: Addressing and Managing Legal Risks and Liabilities”.



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