With Construction, Compromise is Always an Option (guest post)

Chris Hill, attorney, construction law.

Chris Hill, attorney, construction law.

Today, we have a guest post from one of our favorite  Virginia lawyers- Chris Hill. 

As always, he knocks it out of the park with another worthy post explaining why biting the bullet and settling your claim sometimes is the way to go. 

Here is Chris’s official bio:  Christopher G. Hill, LEED AP is 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. 

Without further adieu, take it away Chris!

As always, thanks to Melissa for letting a Blue Devil invade her blog. I always enjoy the opportunity. Now, on with the post.

I know, you read a title like this and your first thought is “I’ll never have to compromise, if I get into trouble, I’ll be in the right!” You followed your friendly construction attorney’s advice, drafted a great contract (using a “belt and suspenders” approach) and do good work! What could possibly go wrong?

Well, among other things: 1. An owner may not pay the general contractor that you subcontracted to, 2. Weather could cause delays beyond your control, or 3. (yes, I’ll say it here) the architect may not like your work and what you did with his or her masterpiece of design. [Editor’s note: architectural plans exist for a reason, people!]. These three were just off the top of my head. Given that “Murphy was an optimist,” there are many other things totally beyond your control as a construction pro that can and likely will go wrong. The question is how to make the best of that bad situation.

Lets skip the easy points and head straight for the title of the post. You’ve already done all you can to “fix” the situation: increased manpower, shuffled your workforce, and gotten the work done as soon as possible. The party that should be paying you has decided not to do so. You decide that you need to do something besides beg for your money.

At this point you have a couple of options (not mutually exclusive): Mediation or Litigation/Arbitration. The second option is the “nuclear” option and to be used as a last resort. Remember, this is a zero sum game with no winners once the lawyers start filing papers. You will spend money that you didn’t plan to spend and take focus away from your business.

The first option is where you compromise. While you may not get the result that you may get by going to the mat in litigation, namely a judgment for everything that you would have gotten had you been paid in full, mediation has its advantages.

What are they? 1. The big one is control. With litigation or arbitration, you are turning your fate (and possibly the fate of your business) over to a third party. In mediation, you get some control and get to creatively determine the best way to solve the problem. 2. After anywhere from a few hours to a day, the dispute is resolved. Compare this to the several months to several years of litigation and you see where this would help. 3. It cuts off the attorney fee spigot much sooner than the alternative. While I as a construction attorney don’t mind being paid, you can’t run a business profitably with a monthly legal bill.

While a compromise is never the ideal, it is in most cases far better than the alternative.

Thanks, Chris!  It is a tough message to hear when you are in the thick of battle, proving that you are right, but the economic realities should always be considered before starting down the long path toward a court trial. 

Now it is your turn.  Have you settled or mediated a claim purely to put the economic pain of litigation to rest?  Do you regret that decision, or feel it was for the best?  Share in the comment section below.

PS:  Final reminder to VOTE for this blog in the “Best Legal Blog” competition. TODAY IS THE LAST DAY!  It takes, literally, about 1 second, and does not require your name, email, or anything else.  (It tracks IP numbers only).  THANK YOU for your vote!!!!!


Learn from SONY: Don’t use trash talk in your construction project emails!

Bears hibernating

A hibernating bear and her cubs

Lessons in construction administration come from everywhere — including the SONY scandal.

In case you are a bear hibernating in a cave (in which case, go back to sleep!), you’ve heard about the SONY hacking that was apparently, but not definitively, done by North Korea due to their displeasure over the movie The Interview.  And, you may have found it amusing to read of the inner bickering at SONY, at lease until the threat of a national incident and the (at least temporary) yanking of the movie from its planned Christmas release.

Lost in all of the discussion about taste, censorship, security, and First Amendment rights, however, was a simple lesson for each of us.  Never put anything in writing that you wouldn’t want to see on the TMZ report, the Wall Street Journal, or the New York Times.  For example, don’t call one of the biggest stars in your studio (Angelina Jolie) a “minimally talented spoiled brat.”

I’ve written about this before, but this is a fine time to remind you that someday, someone will read your emails.  And that someone will not be privy to your internal jokes, quirky sense of humor, or understand that you just had a bad day.  If you have to have those awkward conversations– have them in person, or at least on the phone.  Don’t play around with written communications.  Every email, text, tweet, Facebook post, letter, note, or diary entry can be discoverable in a lawsuit.

We’ve all done it.  Sent inappropriate emails.  Vents.  Laments.  Stop.  Endeavor to be boring rather than funny in all of your online accounts.  You may be only laughing on the inside, but you’ll still have a job, respect, and knowledge that there are no hidden documents waiting to shame you at the stroke of a hacker’s keyboard.  And, tell your employees to do the same.

Do you have an example of getting an inadvertent email or text?  Something that could have been embarrassing if it leaked beyond your firm?  Share in the comments below.

Photo courtesy Wikimedia.







Wake County Justice Center- a LEED Silver Project done right!

Justice Center

The atrium

Yesterday evening, I had the privilege of attending the Triangle USGBC’s  “Talk & Walk” at the Wake County Justice Center.  The 576,996 square foot Justice Center was completed 6 months early and over 30 million under budget.  (The final cost, including soft costs, came in at ~$141,000,000).  Now that’s what I call a LEED project done right!

Interestingly, the County did not endeavor for a LEED Silver rating– the plan was to aim for a Certification.  However, as the process unfolded, the Team kept meeting the goals and points for a Silver certification without any appreciable additional costs.

The end result?  An “iconic but energy efficient building,” according to Tim Ashby, current Wake County Facilities Project Manager.  Tim was initially involved in the Project while working at O’Brien Atkins, which served as the architecture firm for the Project under the direction of Architect Andrew Zwiacher.

The Project was a Construction Manager at Risk project, involving a joint venture between Balfour Beatty Construction and Barnhill Contracting Company.   Did the contract type contribute to the success of the Project?  According to Project representatives, it likely was responsible for the 6 month early completion due to the high level of coordination.

Energy efficiency in the Building comes from the low flow plumbing (total water savings of 45%, 15% more than LEED requires), programmable and natural daylighting, and almost 98% construction waste diversion.

Jury Room

The large & relaxing Jury waiting room

Another interesting legal factoid: BIM (Building Information Modeling) was utilized.  Through BIM, a conflict was discovered in the space allocated for the air handling units versus the planned size of those units.  This discovery enabled a change to the AHU units (to make them wider and shorter) prior to manufacturer, saving untold delays in time and increases in cost.  We’ll talk more later about the pros (and cons) of BIM, but suffice it to say it worked very well on this Project.

If you haven’t been by to see the Justice Center yet, please do.  It’s a great design (17 elevators!), and a great change from the old Courthouse across the street.

Have you seen the Justice Center yet?  Thoughts on the design?  Share in the comments below.

Photos (c) Melissa Brumback. .Creative Commons License



Consequential Damages: What are they? Should I waive them? (law note)

A client asked me about a contract he was asked to sign in which consequential damages were being waived.  Consequential damages are those things that cost money which arise indirectly out of a failure of a party on a construction project.   dollar signsThey can include:

  • loss of use
  • loss of rent
  • loss of profit
  • loss of bonding capacity
  • extended overhead
  • extended equipment rental fees
  • increased material costs
  • interest

Note that this is not an exhaustive list, and other consequential damages may be applicable depending on the project.

Often, like my client, you may be asked to waive consequential damages.  This is a double edged sword.  If the waiver is mutual (something on which you should insist), then the provision may save you money in the event your design or services delay the project.  The Owner has agreed that it cannot seek to recover indirect, consequential damages.  On the other hand, if you are the one suing the Owner, it means that there may be costs that you cannot be compensated for if a project goes awry.

The standard industry contracts all have at least some waiver of consequential damages, as noted in this chart.

waiver in form contractsBottom line: waiver of consequentials can be a good thing or a bad thing, but you will not know which when you are signing on the dotted line.

Just make sure that if there is a waiver, that it is mutual on both sides.  Good luck, and “be safe out there

Your turn.  Have you ever waived your right to consequentials?  Horror story to share about paying someone else’s costs?  Share in the comment section.

Dollar Photo (c) sivlen001.
Chart (c) Melissa Brumback Creative Commons License

Is there a dead body in your future? The first sign of trouble on the construction project (Law & Order: Hard Hat files Part 1)

fake dead bodyNobody dies in a construction dispute.  At least most of the time!

However, just as the usual “thunk-thunk” chord in Law & Order warns the viewer that something is awry, there are warning signs that your construction project may be under similar dire straights.  You should recognize these signs for what they are—early-warning lawsuit detection devices.  Signs that a lawsuit may be in your future include:

  1. The  “everything has gone wrong” situation.  This one is fairly big and obvious, but it bears mentioning.  If the project is delayed, over budget, and there are signs that the owner is looking for someone to take the fall, watch out.
  2. Much more subtle, but equally troubling, is the start acting squirrely” syndrome.  If you have always had a good working relationship with the general contractor, but suddenly he is aloof, watch out.  If the owner is usually friendly and free with the flow of information, and he suddenly begins to clam up, be concerned.
  3. The let’s document everything” protocol.  Now, as a lawyer, I feel duty bound to tell you that I think documenting everything is best management practice.  However, I do know that most normal folk don’t usually behave this way 24/7.  So, if you are on a project where a contractor likes to write letters to the file almost as much as he does change order requests, be leery.  Could be he just listens well to his lawyer’s proactive advice to document everything.  Or, could be he is preparing a case from the get-go to claim design failures, construction administration delays, and the like.  How to tell the difference?  Often, you can only go with your gut.  But take note—is Mr. Letter Writer documenting everything, or just items that might be considered “blame-able” ?
  4. The I’m confused” RFI king.   Similar to #3 above, but more specific, the confused RFI king always seems to need clarification or further information about your design.  The requests for information flow so fast, you may have trouble responding timely.  This may be part of the plan.  Or, it may simply be a numbers game— either the contractor is asking RFIs to buy time on the project (often on a case with strong liquidated damages provisions), or he wants to later be able to point out the “excess number of RFIs” to prove “bad design.”

 Now that you’ve caught the whiff of trouble brewing, how do you stop it before the dead body smell takes up residence in your car?  Observe, document, and respond in kind.

If you are dealing with an RFI king, respond timely, and note when the RFI is asking for information that is readily available on the plans.  You might even consider keeping your own running log of questionable RFIs, so you can readily show your lawyer, and a future jury, that although there may have appeared to be a large number of RFIs on the project, the fact was that most of them (X percentage) were questions about something that the contractor should have already known if he had reviewed the plans.

If you have a “document everything” guy on your hands,  respond in kind.  You should be doing this anyhow, of course, but if you have someone that is especially prone to documenting everything, you need to be extra vigilant that he is not stating anything that is untruthful, that the documentation is complete, and that any time you get a document that doesn’t completely tell “the truth, the whole truth”, that you supplement it with your own documentation accordingly.

If you have a squirrely acting client, you might consider just politely confronting him to ask if anything is going on.  It could be something that has nothing to do with the project –  internal politics, personnel crises, etc.  In which case, you will find that out.  If there is something more sinister afoot, you can probably determine that as well.  The key here is to ask whoever you are (or had been) close to, and to ask them off the record, in person.  You can learn a whole lot through non-verbal body language.  If you find out, directly or indirectly, that there may be a claim afoot, then you can proceed accordingly.

If the project has gone to hell in a handbasket, there is not a whole lot you can do, other than to keep ensuring that you and your team are meeting all contract requirements.  Part of this should include documentation for the eventual lawsuit, if it comes to that.  You might also contact your lawyer or insurance company for assistance behind the scenes—something called “loss prevention”.  Remember, reporting the dead body is the first step to clearing the air.  It’s the cover up that usually gets folks in trouble.

Now it’s your turn.  Drop me a note or comment below to share your own techniques for recognizing possible lawsuits.  Next week in the series: the mechanics of being sued.  Stay tuned!

Photo (which is not of a *real* dead body) (c) garlandcannon via cc. 


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