As a general rule, it has been difficult for homeowners in Georgia to successfully take action against home inspectors for negligent inspections. A recent case in the Georgia Court of Appeals may have opened the door for such actions in the future.
Paul Hughes, through an agent, hired Cornerstone Inspection Group, Inc. ("Cornerstone") to conduct a pre-purchase inspection of a residence he intended to buy. The inspection was conducted on May 22, 2013. Hughes and Cornerstone entered into an Inspection Agreement, which was signed electronically. The Inspection Agreement stated that "any claim or legal action by Client against Inspector must be filed within one year after completion of the inspection of the property by Inspector."
On October 10, 2013, nearly five months later (and after he had purchased the home), Hughes had a second inspection performed by a different inspector, because, as he alleged in his complaint, he was "given reason to believe that Cornerstone's inspection might have been inadequate and incomplete."
Hughes filed suit against Cornerstone on November 14, 2014, more than a year after the second inspection, and nearly a year and a half after he signed the Inspection Agreement.
Cornerstone filed a motion to dismiss Hughes' Complaint. Hughes filed a response to the motion, alleging, among other things, that he was forced to electronically sign the Inspection Agreement in order to receive his inspection report, but that he was unable to download a copy of the agreement before signing it.
The trial court granted Cornerstone's motion on the grounds that Hughes' claim was barred by the one-year limitations period provided for in the Inspection Agreement, and that further, Hughes failed to allege in his Complaint that he was unaware of the provision, or any facts that would render that provision invalid.
Hughes appealed from the trial court's order dismissing his complaint.
The Georgia Court of Appeals overturned the trial court's finding that Hughes had failed to state a claim. The Court of Appeals declared that the Complaint did state a claim for negligent inspection of a home, and should not have been dismissed. Hughes was not required to anticipate and respond in his Complaint to the contractual limitation period defense asserted by Cornerstone in their Answer. And because Hughes was also not required to reply to the allegations in the Answer, the trial court was obligated to treat those allegations as if Hughes had denied them.
Homeowners need to understand that the Court of Appeals' ruling does not mean that Mr. Hughes had a valid claim for home inspector negligence—only that the trial court was wrong in concluding, at that point in the proceedings, that he did not have a claim. Given the previous lack of support for inspection negligence claims, this is a hopeful sign for homeowners.
Some practical advice to take away from this case: never sign an agreement you haven't had the chance to fully read and understand. And if you think your home inspector has not done the job he or she was supposed to, don't delay in taking action. As with most claims, there's rarely an advantage to waiting to pursue a complaint against a home inspector you believe may have been negligent. Contact a respected Georgia real estate attorney and litigator as soon as possible to discuss your case and preserve any rights you may have.