How your disgruntled client can turn into your very own car crash! (and how to avoid it) (law tips)

Over the summer, I was involved in a car crash.  It was *not* my fault– heck, I wasn’t even driving but riding shotgun.  But it wasn’t my husband’s fault either.  A guy pulling out of a parking lot was watching the traffic coming up the road, but failed to see our car sitting in the same intersection waiting to turn into the same parking lot.  He ran right into us.  Here was the damage:

car damage

 

It may not look like much, but the panels were so damaged it cost almost $9k in damages, over a month of car rental fees, and a LOT of aggravation on our part.  The guy who hit us was very nice, apologized, and was concerned if we were injured.  His insurance company ultimately paid for all of the damage.  However– it wasn’t he who suddenly got a new part time job– that was me.  I had to spend lots of time with police, insurance representatives, auto body mechanics, rental car places, you name it.  If you’ve ever been in an accident, you know the headache involved.  In fact, I have had 2 other accidents over the years (again, neither of which were my fault– I think I’m just a beacon for bad drivers?).  One of those accidents was a 4 car accident– a driver hit my car, pushing it into the car ahead, which went into the car ahead of that.  In that accident, my car was actually totaled.  Fun times!

How is this relevant to your life as an architect or engineer?  If you stay in the game (that is, the design field) long enough, chances are, you will, at some point, end up dealing with disgruntled clients.  One of those clients may even file a lawsuit against you.  Or, for that matter, you may end up getting sued by another party involved in your construction projects– one that you don’t even have a contract with.

If that happens, you too will have a new part-time job– working on your defense.  Think meetings with your attorneys, calls with your insurance adjuster, unbilled time sitting for deposition, searches through all of your project emails and files, and the potential for a long jury trial (again, unbillable time for you).  Sounds fun, doesn’t it?  Maybe even makes you want to scream with the unfairness of it all.

The thing is, while there are certain things you can do to minimize your risks of being sued and your chances of prevailing if you are sued, even if you win, you’ve lost in time and opportunities.  In a fair system, you wouldn’t face this for unfair or frivolous claims.  In a fair system, I wouldn’t have to spend hours dealing with the fall out of an accident I didn’t cause.  But sometimes, stuff happens.

Just like there are ways of minimizing your risk of car accidents (turn signals, watching for inattentive drivers) and reducing damage when they occur (using seat belts, driving slower), there are also ways to minimize your risk of a lawsuit and reducing your damage when they do occur.

Some ideas:

  1. Have a written contract for every project, every time
  2. Get that contract reviewed by your insurance carrier and lawyer
  3. Be sure to specify what you will, and will not be doing in your scope of work  (being redundant is good here!)
  4. Establish clear payment terms, and expectations about fees for additional services, up front.
  5. Have good document management systems in place, which you’ll need for if/when litigation does occur
  6. Be aware of warning signs that there may be a lawsuit in your future; and
  7. If you do get sued, don’t panic, but take some steps to help your case get off on the right foot

But remember, when all is said and done:  you place your bets and roll the wheel.  Sometimes, your number comes up.  While these tips cannot prevent being sued by a disgruntled client, they can lessen the risk and impact.  And that is *almost* as good as getting your car fixed, returning the rental to the shop, and quitting your new part time job!

Have you had to suffer through an unfair lawsuit from a disgruntled client or third party?  Tips you wish you had known earlier?  Concerns about your own contracts?  Share in the comments below or drop me an email at mbrumback@rl-law.com.

Photo: Creative Commons License

Need to Cover Yourself for “Crisis” Changes on a Job Site? Try These Tips (guest post)

Today, we welcome back friend of the blog Christopher G. Hill. 

Chris is a  LEED AP, a Virginia Supreme Court certified mediator, construction lawyer and owner of the Richmond, VA firm, The Law Office of Christopher G. Hill, PC.  Chris authors the Construction Law Musings blog where he discusses legal and policy issues relevant to construction professionals.  

His practice concentrates on mechanic’s liens, contract review and consulting, occupational safety issues (VOSH and OSHA), and risk management for construction professionals.  [His blog, by the way, was an active influence when I was just getting started on my own blogging endeavor.]  Take it away Chris………….

Chris Hill

 

I am always happy to guest post here at Melissa’s blog (despite the fact that she went to a school with the wrong color blue) and she had a great idea for a topic (namely that in the title of this post) so I decided to run with it.  So, without further ado. . .

As construction professionals we’ve all been there.  Something happens on a job site that requires immediate attention and possibly a changed sequence of work or possibly a change to a subcontractor’s scope.  It could be a buried power line that Miss Utility failed to mark properly or an owner that wants a different HVAC configuration at the last minute.  It could also simply be that it rained too much, and work had to slow down.

The above examples are instances of items that are beyond the control of the general contractor or the subcontractors and are the type that require shifts in work schedules and changes in scope that must be dealt with on the fly and require quick decisions and immediate action if the project is to meet any time of completion reasonably close to that which is listed in the contract documents.  It can often seem that there is no time to meet the written change order provisions of any well drafted construction contract.

Of course, failing to get your change orders in writing could lead to a situation that only a construction attorney could love: ambiguity, claims and possible litigation.  So, what do you do in the “heat of battle” when the Owner or General Contractor is pushing for the change and telling you to get it done, we’ll do the paperwork later?  While anything aside from an agreed change order with the signatures of all parties is not ideal, when the circumstances keep this from happening, the following steps can keep you from losing a potential claim:

  1. Use your smartphone.

    We all carry these computers in our pockets that also happen to have an app that works like a phone. USE THEM.  When confronted with this type of situation, send an email (I personally hate texts because they’re hard to use later) with the understanding of the work to be done and either a price change or a statement that a price will be coming later in the day.  Be sure to end the email with something to the effect of “If this is not your understanding, please let me know” so that when you don’t get a reply before starting the new work, you are as covered as possible.

  2. Follow up on Number 1

    If you must use Number 1 above, be sure to fill out a claim/proposed change order the same day as the email with the proposed scope change and price.  Most construction contracts give you at most 3 days in which to file your claim or PCO if there is not one in place.  Immediate follow up will in most cases meet these deadlines.

  3. Review your contract and any Prime Contract.

    As stated above, there are deadlines in these documents.  Often there are additional and incorporated deadlines in the prime contract that may limit your follow up time even further.

  4. Don’t “punt.”

    Whatever you do, do not “punt” and fall into the trap of feeling as if you can settle up at the end of the job. Just because the relationship is friendly (or at least reasonably businesslike) at the time of the “crisis” does not mean that when the job gets to the end any paperwork omission won’t be used to avoid payment.

Of course, the ideal would be to avoid beginning the changed work until the change orders have been signed, but this is not always possible.

Great post Chris! 

Remember, without documenting project agreements, you may end up forfeiting your claims later on.  Create a good document system and use it.  During litigation, documents could make or break your case.  

Comments, thoughts, questions?  Drop a line in the comment section below.

Top AIA A201 construction contract changes: a handy cheat-sheet

summaryFriday, I wrote an article for Chris Hill’s Virginia-based blog, Construction Law Musings,  summarizing the Top 10 Changes to the AIA A201, that I discussed in depth over the past few weeks here on this blog.

If you missed any of my earlier posts, or just want a handy “executive summary” or cheat-sheet of the key changes to the General Conditions of the Contract, check out my summary post on the Musings blog.

While there, sign up for Chris’ blog posts to keep up to date on construction law issues in Virginia.  Even though he’s a Duke grad, he’s still pretty cool!

Photo (c) Nick Youngson and Creative Commons license by Alpha Stock Images.

 

Insight into the AIA changes from an insider (law note)

Arlen SolochekAfter my series on the Top 10 Changes to the AIA 201, I heard from the Chair of the Task Group for the A201-2017, Arlen M. Solocheck.  Arlen is also both an architect and in-house owner’s representative at Maricopa Community Colleges, where he is the Associate Vice Chancellor for Capital Planning & Special Projects.

Arlen’s Task Force was responsible for the Herculean task of updating the A201 from the 2007 version, a process that took over 3 years.  He writes:

 

As chair of the Task Group that updated the AIA A201, I want to provide some additional thought to your AIA documents update, #10, Hidden Conditions. The objective of most notices, claims processes, etc. in the A201 is to keep the work proceeding while problems are resolved. Delays due to any reason harm both the contractor and owner. Once hidden conditions are discovered, the contractor is to notify the architect, who then is supposed to observe the conditions. The longer it takes to provide the notice, the more the hidden condition may be modified, impacted, or delay other work as that work progresses. We suggest that parties who are concerned about adverse impacts from shortening the notice period also note that no solution, no additional pricing, etc. is required with the notice. All that 3.7.4 requires is notice. A contractor should know pretty quickly if he’s seeing something that he didn’t expect. All that 3.7.4 requires is for him to say that.  

 

Arlen also notes that the process involved in making changes to the AIA documents is extensive:

I want people to understand that AIA and our task groups don’t make quick, willy-nilly decisions and changes, but they come from a lot of discussion, balance, reviews, feedback, etc. from the entire 30+ person document committee, AIA staff attorneys, and dozens of outside liaison reviewers we have who read every word and offer literally thousands of review comments on our drafts.

We can’t catch everything, even over 3 years of working on the document, so we enjoy and respect the outside comments and analysis, including those after publishing the updated version. If we goofed something up, it goes into the list to review for the next update.  I like to add some of the behind the scenes thinking so that even if someone doesn’t necessarily agree with the change we made, at least there’s an understanding of the reason behind it. 

In the particular comments made in the article, the comment seemed (to me) to overstate the risk due to and reasons for the change. Your caution in the article is reasonable for readers and clients, but I wanted to balance it with what the language really requires and effectively that it did not change a lot of the risk from the prior version.  The big picture is that there’s a reason for proper notice to be given on a project and lack of that notice puts a contractor or owner in a bad position should the claim later be lost or denied due to lack of Notice

 

Arlen also commented on the changes to the notice provisions

In A201-2007, there was capital N Notice, small n notice, “notify”, etc. not used consistently. We tried to clean that up with how when notice (small n) needs to be made, how notice (small n) can be made (including electronic/email if agreed upon), and that only Notices for a claim (capital N Notices) must be made in writing with proof of receipt possible.  We felt that this was the kind of Notice that was important enough to continue as formal, in writing, and proof of receipt. 

 

Thanks, Arlen, for your dedication to the design community, and for sharing your comments with us today.  I invite other readers to ask questions (for Arlen or me) in the comment section, below.   

 

 

Bonus Post: Other Notable Changes to the A201 Construction Contract (law note)

Bonus

Following our deep-dive into the newest A201 changes, and as promised in yesterday’s Insurance changes post, here are a few bonus changes to the General Conditions of the Contract:

  • If the Architect is terminated, the Owner must identify a successor Architect that the Contractor agrees with (Section 2.3.3)
  • The Contractor’s schedule is to include interim milestones and apportionment of the Work (Section 3.10.1)
  • The Contractor can rely on the accuracy of the design criteria in the Documents (Section 3.12.10.1)
  • Minor changes in the  Work- must be in writing; are deemed accepted at no cost unless Notice is given (Section 7.4)
  • The Owner may contact not only Subcontractors to determine payment, but also Suppliers (Section 9.6.4)
  • The Contractor indemnifies the Owner for lien claims, if paid in full (Section 9.6.8)

Do you have a question or comment about the A201, or the revisions to the A201?  If so, drop me a line below or through email.

Photo via AlphaStock images via Creative Commons license.

 

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