Bob Aaron email@example.com
August 27, 2005
Hollywood star's court win a victory for homeowners
Case helps bolster consumer rights
who wants to build a custom home might learn something from the recent
experience of Sandra Bullock, star of Miss Congeniality, who successfully
sued her builder for $7 million (U.S.).
It all started when Bullock, now 41, hired the architect/builder M.B.
"Benny" Daneshjou, to design and build her $6.5 million, 10,000-square foot home
overlooking Lake Austin, in Texas in 1997. When he hadn't been fully paid by
2001, Daneshjou sued Bullock for money he said was owing to him on the building
In hindsight, it was a mistake. Bullock counter-sued, claiming defects in
the construction of the home. During the two-month-long trial last year, the
jury heard evidence of numerous problems, including damage to the brickwork,
faulty wiring, water damage, and poor roof framing. Witnesses testified about
non-compliance with local building codes, problems with the flashing and stucco,
rotting drywall and the presence of toxic mould.
Today, eight years after construction began, the house is still
incomplete and Bullock has never lived in it. During her testimony at the trial
last fall, Bullock couldn't help cracking jokes about her legal fees. Glancing
toward her lawyers, she said, "You guys are pricey. It's going to be a good
Christmas, isn't it?"
The courtroom dissolved into laughter. It's nice to be able to joke about
legal fees if you're wealthy. The jury took four days to answer 48 questions
before reaching a verdict. Most of the issues were resolved in favour of
Bullock. She was awarded more than $2 million for repairs to the house, $200,000
for maintaining it from early 2000 to the trial, $280,000 in labour overcharges,
and legal fees. Her lawyers estimate total damages awarded at $7 million (U.S.).
In a written statement after the verdict was reached, Bullock said, "I
felt firmly committed to see this process through to a just conclusion, no
matter what the outcome, especially for all those homeowners who could never
afford to come this far."
Earlier this year, Bullock still hadn't received any of the money the
jury awarded her. The Austin American-Statesman reported in February that
Bullock sued Daneshjou again, claiming that he was hiding his assets to avoid
paying creditors. That case has not come to trial and the allegations have not
been proven in court.
In the wake of the publicity over the Bullock case, the Texas legislature
introduced a new compulsory limited warranty for anyone who buys a new home
after May 30, 2005. Consumer groups attacked the legislation as builder-biased
and too weak for the consumer, but at least it's a start. Buyers of new homes in
the United States typically do not have the same level of new home warranty
protection as we do in Ontario.
As a result, American consumer advocacy groups were delighted at
Bullock's win, seeing her as a role model for the "little guy" who cannot afford
to take on builders with deep pockets.
"A victory for Sandra Bullock brings to an end a long, gruelling trial
that sends a loud message to lawmakers, the home-building industry and a message
of hope for homebuyers of defective homes across the nation,'' said Jane Ahmad,
president of Home Owners For Better Building, based in San Antonio, Texas.
Nancy Seats, president of Homeowners Against Deficient Dwellings (HADD)
in St. Louis, Missouri, noted that lawsuits against builders are uncommon
because of the costs involved.
"I don't think that the average middle-income homeowner is going to
pursue such a case," she said.
Canada has its own consumer website for buyers of new homes, founded by
Ottawa resident Karen Somerville (http://www.canadiansforproperlybuilthomes.com). The site was
founded by Somerville during litigation with her builder which I wrote about in
last week's Title Page column. The site contains many useful links for
homeowners across Canada.
My own recommendations for anyone wanting to build a custom home are: