Twin Island Development Corp. v. Winchester

Decision Date03 July 1986
Citation512 A.2d 319
PartiesTWIN ISLAND DEVELOPMENT CORPORATION v. Catherine WINCHESTER.
CourtMaine Supreme Court

Mittel & Hefferan, E. Paul Eggert (orally), Robert E. Mittel, Portland, for plaintiff.

David A. Ross (orally), Washington, D.C., for intervening defendant.

Ayer & Hodsdon, Gordon C. Ayer, Kennebunk, for defendant.

Before McKUSICK, C.J., and NICHOLS, ROBERTS, GLASSMAN and SCOLNIK, JJ.

McKUSICK, Chief Justice.

After a jury trial in York County, the Superior Court entered judgment against defendant Catherine Winchester adjudging that plaintiff Twin Island Development Corporation (Twin Island) was entitled to a mechanic's lien for a specified amount against certain land in Kennebunkport, and awarding Twin Island contract damages against defendant personally in the same amount as the mechanic's lien. Catherine Winchester appeals from both parts of the judgment. As to the first part, we conclude that defendant fails to identify any fatal defect in the complaint by which Twin Island commenced its action to enforce a mechanic's lien for work it performed in constructing roads on the Kennebunkport land. As to the second part of the judgment, we reject both of defendant's contentions (1) that the presiding justice's charge to the jury contained reversible error and (2) that the jury's finding that she had vested her husband with apparent authority to contract for her was not adequately supported in the evidence. We therefore affirm the judgment of the Superior Court in all respects.

Background

On May 3, 1980, Catherine Winchester and her husband, Hugh Winchester, contracted to purchase from John Fulton a farm located on Guinea Road in Kennebunkport (hereinafter referred to as the "Winchester property" or the "farm"). The Winchesters took immediate possession under a lease arrangement. On June 9, 1980, Fulton as seller and Catherine Winchester as sole purchaser executed a bond for a deed for the farm. Two days before, on June 7, Twin Island, a close corporation owned and operated solely by George Garnache, had begun construction of a road on the farm pursuant to an oral agreement with Hugh Winchester. As the job progressed through the summer of 1980, the Winchesters expanded the project to include construction of a horse training track. By July Garnache had discussed the nature and scope of his work with both Fulton and Catherine Winchester. Fulton, who had not been paid according to the terms of the bond for a deed, expressed concern to Garnache about the Winchesters' solvency. Although Catherine Winchester spent some time that summer in England, she was present at the premises during part of the time the construction work was going on, and she expressed directly to Garnache criticism of the quality and timeliness of Twin Island's work. She had plans for making a living by raising and training horses on the farm. On August 26, 1980, Twin Island, not having been paid in full, stopped work on the Winchester property. On September 22, 1980, Twin Island filed in the York County Registry of Deeds a statement of lien claim against the farm.

On November 25, 1980, Twin Island commenced the present action against Catherine Winchester and her husband, Hugh, by filing a complaint seeking to enforce a mechanic's lien against the Winchester property for labor performed and materials furnished "in improving the land" thereof. 1 In March 1984 the Superior Court permitted plaintiff Twin Island to amend its complaint to add a second count seeking contract damages against Catherine and Hugh Winchester for the same labor and materials. The court entered a default against Hugh Winchester for failure to respond to discovery requests. Both the lien claim (count 1) and the contract claim (count 2) against Catherine Winchester were tried to a jury on June 12-14, 1985. 2 The jury, in a special verdict, found, inter alia, that Twin Island had "suppl[ied] material and perform[ed] labor in the construction of [roads] on the Winchester property," that Twin Island was entitled to $41,029 "for the work performed on the Winchester property," that both John Fulton and Catherine Winchester had given consent to plaintiff Twin Island for the work, and that Hugh Winchester had apparent authority to make a contract with Twin Island on behalf of his wife, Catherine. After giving credit for $13,673.10 previously paid to Twin Island for the work, the Superior Court on August 6, 1985, entered the following judgment:

It is ORDERED and ADJUDGED that the plaintiff is entitled to a mechanic's lien in the amount of $27,355.90, plus interest and costs against the subject property and a judgment in the amount of $27,355.90, plus interest and costs against the defendants Catherine Winchester and Hugh Winchester. 3

I. Mechanic's Lien Claim

Defendant Catherine Winchester attempts to defeat the mechanic's lien asserted against her property on the ground that the complaint by which Twin Island commenced the action to enforce the lien did not describe the work done with adequate specificity. Defendant concedes that for the purposes of the lien statute she was the owner of the property, at least after June 9, 1980, when she became the purchaser of the farm under a bond for a deed, and she continued as such throughout the period Twin Island worked on her property. 4 By special verdict the jury specifically found that Twin Island supplied materials and performed labor in the construction of roads on the Winchester property, and that defendant's husband had apparent authority to contract for her for that road construction and that she also consented to it. Accordingly, pursuant to 10 M.R.S.A. § 3501 (1980), 5 since Twin Island did that road work both "by virtue of a contract with [and] by consent of the owner," it automatically had a statutory "lien on the lot of land over which such road ... is laid out or constructed." In the language of Shaw v. Young, 87 Me. 271, 274, 32 A. 897, 898 (1895), "it is clear that the lien has been honestly earned [by Twin Island], and [that Twin Island as] the lien claimant is within the statute," section 3501.

By the terms of section 3501, which created it, Twin Island's lien might be "enforced in the same manner and under the same restrictions as liens on buildings and lots" under 10 M.R.S.A. §§ 3251-3269 (1980 & Supp.1985). Since it furnished the labor and materials by a contract with the owner of the property affected, Twin Island did not have to file a lien claim in the registry of deeds as otherwise required by 10 M.R.S.A. § 3253, in order to avoid its lien being dissolved. 6 Instead, to enforce its lien, it needed only to commence a lien enforcement action within 120 days after the last of the labor or materials was furnished, 7 10 M.R.S.A. § 3255(1), by filing a complaint satisfying the pleading requirements of 10 M.R.S.A. § 3257. 8 Applying the section 3257 pleading requirements (for building liens) to the section 3501 road construction lien mutatis mutandis, it is argued that technically Twin Island's complaint should have alleged that it furnished labor and materials "in the laying out or construction of ... road[s], path[s] or walk[s]." Instead, its complaint read in pertinent part: "Plaintiff [Twin Island] ... performed certain labor and furnished certain materials, all of which ... entered into and were used in improving the land [of Catherine Winchester]...." (Emphasis added) Plainly, the language "improving the land" generically encompasses the specific work of "laying out or construction of any road, path or walk."

As her sole attack upon the pleading adequacy of the complaint, defendant Catherine Winchester contends that, regardless how familiar she was with the road construction work done with her consent and under her contract, Twin Island's complaint has a fatal defect since it does not recite specifically the subcategory of work in improving her land that the lien suit involves. On the facts of this case, we find her argument overly technical and productive of an injustice to a lienor who has performed lienable work pursuant to a contract with the owner herself. Catherine Winchester, the owner of the property, having permitted herself to be bound contractually for the road work and also having consented to its being done, is in no position to assert any such technical deficiency in Twin Island's complaint. No prejudice whatever resulted to her from the use by the complaint of a generalized description of the work, rather than the more specific "magic language" of section 3501. The "improving of the land" language was in no way an incorrect description of the work done; at worst it was overbroad. No harm whatever came to defendant from that overbreadth.

We have long adhered to the principle that the mechanic's lien statutes will be construed and applied liberally "to further their equity and efficacy, when it is clear that the lien has been honestly earned, and the lien claimant is within the statute." Shaw v. Young, 87 Me. at 274, 32 A. at 898 (lien statute construed to make estate subject to lien coextensive with the estate benefited by lienable work). That principle guided our decision in Otis Elevator Co. v. Finks Clothing Co., 131 Me. 95, 159 A. 563 (1932). The plaintiff, Otis Elevator, installed an elevator in a building in Portland and brought suit to enforce a lien, reciting only that it had "installed the materials and furnished the labor required to complete the contract, in the building located at 234 Middle Street, Portland." Id. at 97, 159 A. at 564. At that time, R.S. ch. 105, § 66 (1930) required that: "The declaration must show that the suit is brought to enforce the lien." Even though the declaration referred only to the "building," this court held that the plaintiff's declaration in a suit against the owner of the building who contracted for the work also adequately asserted a lien against the owner's land on which the...

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