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Attorney Fees Not Available When Failure to Provide Home Repair Pamphlet Was Unintentional

 

Our Chicago consumer fraud attorneys were interested to see a split decision from earlier this year in a case involving a dispute over faulty home repairs. In Kunkel v. P.K. Dependable Construction, No. 5-07-0684 (Ill. 5th Feb. 13, 2009), Herbert and Jeral Dean Kunkel sued P.K. Dependable Construction for failing to adequately replace their roof and adding new leaks. They also alleged that P.K. failed to provide the consumer rights pamphlet required under the Illinois Home Repair and Remodeling Act. Their lawsuit alleged breach of contract and warranty and violations of the Illinois Consumer Fraud Act.

The Kunkels hired P.K. in July of 2003 to replace their roof, which had been leaking over their porch but nowhere else. The contract included a five-year warranty for defects and said P.K. would check for sheeting damage after tearing off shingles and make any repairs necessary for an additional fee. Mrs. Kunkel testified that during the work, she witnessed P.K. employees knocking loose the home’s stucco siding. When she complained, they patched the areas with cement. Aside from some sheeting damage, the work proceeded without incident and the Kunkels paid in full. Unfortunately, it rained a few days later and the Kunkels discovered leaks inside their home. They estimate that P.K. made 20 to 25 attempts over the next three years to fix the leaks, but not all were successful. They entered into evidence an estimate of $1,475 to repair the water damage to their kitchen ceiling.

At a bench trial, a roofing contractor hired by the Kunkels testified that the best way to fix the problem was to remove and replace the roof for an estimate of $5,250. A P.K. employee, Tim Utley, testified that damage he had seen to the sheeting suggested that there were leaks before his company did its work. He also contradicted Mrs. Kunkel’s testimony on the stucco siding, saying he did not tear it up and that it would be impossible to do what their roofing expert suggested because the condition of the stucco was so poor. Utley said he told Mr. Kunkel that he should replace the stucco siding because that was the source of the leaks, testimony that the Kunkels dispute. In the end, the court found for the Kunkels, awarding them $6,725 in compensatory damages (the amount of the kitchen ceiling and roof replacement estimates) and $6,151.50 in attorney fees and court costs. After a motion to reconsider was denied, P.K. appealed.

The Fifth District started with P.K.’s contention that the trial court’s decision was against the manifest weight of the evidence. The trial judge had to resolve conflicts in the evidence, the court wrote, but there was plenty of evidence to support the way the judge resolved it. Thus, the Fifth declined to disturb that ruling. It next turned to the question of whether damages were correctly set. The damages were based on estimates submitted by the Kunkel’s expert and another contractor. This follows Illinois law requiring damages for defective workmanship to reflect the cost of correcting the defects, the court said. Again, witnesses for P.K. testified otherwise, but the Fifth District declined to second-guess the trial judge. And attacks on the sufficiency of the estimate came late, the court said, because P.K. did not challenge its admission into evidence at the time or cross-examine the expert about it. Thus, the damages stand.

Next, the Fifth examined P.K.’s challenge to the Kunkel’s attorney fees award. The Consumer Fraud Act allows plaintiffs to recover attorney fees, the court wrote, but they must prove actual damages. In this case, that finding was based on the trial court’s determination that P.K. violated the section of the Home Repair and Remodeling Act requiring it to provide a consumer rights pamphlet. It’s true that undisputed evidence shows that P.K. did not provide the pamphlet, the court wrote, but the Act requires that violations be knowing to be actionable. No evidence is in the record showing knowledge or state of mind, the court wrote, so there was no violation of the Act. The court also noted that there was no evidence showing that P.K.’s failure to provide the pamphlet caused actual damages. Finally, it disagreed with the trial court’s finding that P.K. failed to complete its work, which would also violate the Act, because it did not believe the Legislature intended to equate defective performance with no performance at all. Thus, it vacated the attorney fee award.


DiTommaso Lubin Austermuehle is dedicated to protecting consumers’ rights against fraud, rip-offs and unfair business practices. Based in Chicago and Oak Brook, Ill., we have practiced consumer rights law in Illinois for more than two decades. Our Wheaton consumer protection attorneys have a strong record of success in holding companies accountable for exploiting consumers, including in cases of overbilling, “lemon” automobiles and mobile homes, deceptive advertising and ATM fee fraud. Numerous state and federal laws require businesses to treat consumers fairly — and provide accountability — but all too often, consumers don’t understand that they have these rights or choose to enforce them. Our Chicago, Northbrook, Waukegan, Naperville and Wheaton Illinois consumer rights lawyers fight back by filing lawsuits that hold exploitative businesses accountable and return their ill-gotten profits to victims.

If you’ve been taken advantage of by a company doing business in Illinois, the law is on your side and so is DiTommaso Lubin Austermuehle. To learn more about your rights and your legal options, contact us today for a free case evaluation at 1-877-990-4990 or through our Web site.