In these difficult economic times, an Owner and/or Contractor may be tempted not to make full and final payment after the work is complete and there is beneficial use and occupancy of the facility. The Owner and/or Contractor may justify this conduct even though there is not currently a problem with the work because there "may" be unanticipated future problems with that will need to be addressed. However, withholding payment for potential defects or warranty issues could turn out not to be a wise decision.
An Owner and/or Contractor’s "belief" that it may have warranty claims sometime in the future may be insufficient to justify withholding of final payment as explained by the Mississippi Supreme Court in Crawford Commercial Constructors, Inc. v. Marine Industrial Residential Insulation, Inc., 437 So.2d 15 (Miss. 1983). In that case, a subcontractor sued the general contractor for payment under a roofing contract. The general contractor had refused to pay the subcontractor on the basis that it "believed the roof was improperly installed, so that [the general contractor] will ultimately be required to repair it to satisfy the building’s owner." Id. The Court ruled that the general contractor’s "beliefs" were conjectural. Id. at 16. In affirming the trial court’s decision in favor of the subcontractor, the Mississippi Supreme Court stated:
Under our authorities there must be a present, existent actionable title or interest which must be completed at the time the cause of action is filed. (citations omitted). A mere inchoate right is not sufficient and neither is a prospective danger of injury. (citations omitted)…"It is certainly an undisputable and invariable rule of law that a right of action must be complete when an action therefore is commenced…."…"we consider it to be the well-settled, general rule, that the facts which constitute the ground of a suit must exist at the time the suit is instituted…"
Id. at 16.
In addition to this jurisprudence, Mississippi has enacted what are generally known as "Prompt Payment Statutes" for both public and private construction contracts. Both of these statutes require timely final payment once the contract has been determined to be substantially complete or there has been beneficial use and occupancy. There are also "Late Payment Interest Statutes" which apply when a contractor fails to make payment "without reasonable cause" to its lower tier subcontractors or suppliers within fifteen (15) days after receipt of payment.
There is no provision for recovery of attorneys’ fees in either the "Prompt Payment Statutes" or the "Late Payment Interest Statutes." Contractors therefore need to ensure the issue of attorneys’ fees associated with collection efforts are adequately addressed in their contract documents.
You can expect this case law and these statutes to be cited frequently in payment disputes during these difficult economic times.