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COA reverses piercing of corporate veil, but upholds slander of title finding

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A Hendricks County storage facility’s claims of breach of contract and slander of title were affirmed on appeal against a contractor hired by the facility to provide excavation services. The Indiana Court of Appeals reversed the piercing of Country Contractors Inc.’s corporate veil to find its two shareholders personally liable.

A Westside Storage of Indianapolis Inc. hired Country Contractors in August 2007 and work began in summer of 2008. Country shareholders Jahn and Stephen Songer were not involved in the contract negotiations as another employee worked with Westside. Country then subcontracted out most of the work. It left the worksite without completing the job and didn’t pay several subcontractors.

Those subcontractors filed mechanic’s liens, which Westside paid. It had to hire another company to complete the job. Complicating the matter is that Country filed a notice of intent to hold a mechanic’s lien on Westside’s property in the amount of the total owed to the subcontractors.

Westside sued, alleging breach of contract and slander of title, and it requested piercing of the corporate veil to hold the Songers personally liable.

The trial court ruled in favor of Westside and against Country and the Songers personally, awarding $117,000 in damages, which consisted of costs to complete the project, prejudgment interest, attorney fees and damages for delay of the project caused by Country’s breach.

In Country Contractors, Inc., Stephen Songer, and Jahn Songer v. A Westside Storage of Indianapolis, Inc., 32A01-1304-CC-155, the Court of Appeals reversed the piercing of the corporate veil, finding that the Songers did not use the corporation to engage in misconduct to their own benefit. Westside also failed to establish that Country’s dwindling capital was due to anything other than a general downturn in the economy or construction industry, Judge Terry Crone wrote.

Crone also noted that lack of recourse because Country is now bankrupt is “simply not a proper basis for piercing the corporate veil.”

The judges affirmed the slander of title finding with respect to Country, however. When Country filed its lien claim, both the subcontractors’ lien claims and the release of lien based on Westside’s direct payment to the subcontractors were on file in the county records. As such, Country had constructive notice of those entries, and its filing of an invalid lien claim constitutes evidence sufficient to support the finding that it slandered Westside’s title.

The $17,500 in attorney fees award is reasonable, but the COA remanded for further proceedings regarding delay damages and prejudgment interest because the nearly $34,000 amount adopted by the trial court was speculative.
 

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