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Coyle v. Williams

2005 WL 2708991 (N.J. Super. App. Div. 2005) (Unpublished)

CONSUMER FRAUD; CONTRACTS; HOME IMPROVEMENT — A contract’s failure to advise a home improvement customer of an included warranty can be the basis for demonstrating an ascertainable loss when the customer pays for repair work without resorting to the undisclosed warranty.

A woman owned a townhouse that she leased to a tenant. She decided to place the townhouse on the market and decided to repair the pool to prepare the property for sale. She entered into a contract with a pool repair company. The contract was prepared by the company’s principal and provided that the company was to install a new vinyl liner in the pool. The contract lacked certain important information such as applicable warranties, the address and telephone number of the company, and the start and end date for the work to be performed. Nevertheless, the woman executed the contract and the company installed a liner in the pool. The company was paid in full for its work. Shortly after the completion, the liner that the pool company installed became wrinkled and the pool began to leak. The woman immediately contacted the pool company and requested that it repair the liner. The pool company refused to make any repairs and as a result, the woman hired an outside contractor to perform the repairs. The outside contractor attempted to repair the liner that had been installed, but was unable to do so. As a result, the contractor had to install a brand new liner in the pool. The woman incurred additional costs as a result of this work and sued the pool company for reimbursement of her costs. Her action was based on breach of contract and violation of the New Jersey Consumer Fraud Act (CFA). A trial was held after which the lower court awarded damages to the woman based on her breach of contract claim. It further held that the pool company violated the CFA by its failure to include certain pertinent information in the terms of the contract. However, it wouldn’t award treble damages or attorneys’ fees under the CFA, finding that the woman failed to demonstrate an ascertainable loss. The woman appealed, arguing that she was entitled to treble damages because there was a causal relationship between the company’s violation of the CFA and the loss she sustained. She also asserted that she was entitled to reasonable attorneys’ fees based on the company’s violation of the CFA.

The Appellate Division reversed and remanded the matter. It found that the lower court erred in concluding that neither treble damages nor attorneys’ fees were warranted. It held that the CFA sets forth two separate standards for awarding treble damages and attorneys’ fees. To receive treble damages in a private action under the CFA, a claimant must show an ascertainable loss. However, to receive attorneys’ fees under the CFA, a claimant need only prove that the defendant committed an unlawful practice. In applying these two standards, the Court found that the woman was clearly entitled to attorneys’ fees because she had established that the pool company violated the CFA by not including information in the contract required under the CFA. It further found that the woman was entitled to treble damages under the CFA because she had demonstrated an ascertainable loss. Specifically, it held that the pool company’s failure to advise the woman that there was a manufacturer’s warranty on the liner resulted in the woman incurring additional expenses in having a new liner installed. This constituted an ascertainable loss. The Court remanded the matter to the lower court to recalculate the damages.

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