Can’t we all just get along? Mediation and settlement of the construction lawsuit (Law & Order: Hard Hat files Part 7)

meeting around tableToday, part 7 of our series on the Construction Lawsuit, Law & Order: Hard Hat files.

At some point during the lawsuit (usually, but not always, after expert reports are produced), your lawyer may tell you the case is going to mediation.  In fact, in North Carolina, all Superior Court cases are ordered into mediation, though the timing is usually left to the lawyers.

What is mediation?

Quite simply, mediation is a process in which the parties, their insurance representatives, and their lawyers get together to discuss trying to settle the case.  The process is usually fairly informal, fast, and, often effective.

How is mediation different from arbitration?

In arbitration, you present your case to a one or three person “panel” of arbitrators.  Witnesses are sworn in, evidence is presented, and, ultimately, the arbitrator(s) decide who wins, who loses, and what amount of damages should be paid.

In mediation, however, there is no “decision maker,” and the only way your case will be resolved is if you agree to having it resolved.  In other words, you have much more control over the outcome.

Technically, how does a mediation work?

Mediations are all unique, but in general, most start out with a “general session” in a large conference room in which all parties (lawyer, parties to the lawsuit, and insurance reps) are present.  The mediator, usually another lawyer who is not involved in the case, will present opening remarks, explaining that he/she is not there to decide anything, the ground rules for the day, and how he handles confidential information.

Then, the mediator asks each lawyer to state his case.  The party who brought the lawsuit always goes first, and they state how the project started, why they sued, and why they believe they are entitled to damages.  This can range from a 5 minute speech from their lawyer to a full-blown 2 hour multi-media (read: powerpoint) presentation, including remarks from retained experts.  I’ve seen both, and everything in between.

Following the plaintiff’s presentation, the other parties will be asked to state their case (i.e., their defense, and any counterclaims), and why they believe they will prevail at trial.

After all of the lawyers have had their say, the mediator will generally allow any parties to speak if they wish to.  Discuss this with your lawyer ahead of time, but the default is to simply bite your tongue, keep your mouth shut, and wait until “private session” to have your say.  No architect or engineer ever made things better by arguing during the opening general session.

What are these “private sessions” of mediation all about?

After the opening session, the mediator will divide the parties into different conference rooms.  Sometimes, parties whose interests are closely aligned may be in the same room, at least for part of the day.  For example, if an architect and his engineer are united in their defense, they may want to spend part of the private sessions together.

The mediator will then practice “shuttle diplomacy”.  That is, the mediator will talk with each party privately, playing devil’s advocate, discussing case outcomes, and, ultimately, passing offers to settle back and forth among the parties.

How do the offers of settlement work?

The settlement offers are highly case-dependent, and can vary throughout the day depending on how the mediator likes to work and how much leeway the attorneys give him.  Usually, he starts with the plaintiffs to find out what amount of money, short of the full amount claimed, they would accept to walk away from the lawsuit.

Then, the mediator talks with the defendants (and third party defendants) about how much money they would be willing to pay to be done with the risks and unknowns of a jury trial.   Conditional, confidential, and other offers are sometimes employed.  If they are, the mediator will discuss the process with you at that time.

Why should I pay money?  My design was good and I haven’t done anything wrong!

At some point during the day, you will end up saying this.  It will seem extremely unfair that you are being asked to pay (or have your insurer pay on your behalf) for someone else’s problem or mix-up.  However, ultimately you will have to make a business decision about how much time and effort your Firm wants to spend on taking the case to a jury.  If the case settles, you free up the time you would otherwise spend in depositions, meeting with your lawyer, talking to experts, and reviewing documents.  Depending on the scope of the project and the lawsuit, this could be hundreds of man-hours.  Further, at the end of the day, you end up risking bad publicity and an adverse judgment that will affect either your bottom line or your insurance premium.

Are you saying I have to settle?

No, absolutely not.  Sometimes, the plaintiff has such a crazy demand, that you are better off taking the case to a jury.  Other times, the evidence is so much in your favor that it doesn’t make sense to settle.  Usually, however, the case is more nuanced, and so you need to discuss the evidence, and your chance of a successful verdict, with your lawyer on a case by case basis.

My case was “impassed” at mediation.  What does this mean?

If the mediator concludes that the parties are too far apart to settle, at some point he will declare an impasse.  If this happens, everyone shakes hands and goes home.

What happens next is that the lawyers may continue to talk over the next month or so to see if there is any chance at all for settlement, and at the same time begin or continue their preparations for a trial.  Just because a case impasses at mediation, doesn’t mean it can’t or won’t settle.

Cases can settle right up and through trial, until the jury comes back with a verdict.  Obviously, the sooner a case settles the better, as you will have spent less time and money on trial preparation.  However, do not give up all hope of settlement simply because of a mediation impasse.  (After all, Lennie Briscoe never gave up, did he?!).

Your turn.  Have you been part of a mediation?  Tell me about your experiences, good and bad.  And, if you haven’t already, be sure to sign up for email updates of blog posts directly to your inbox.  The sign-up box is on the top right hand side of the homepage.

Photo (c) cobrasoft

Research Produces New Standards for Construction (guest post)(& more)

Welcome Back!  The “regular season” of Construction Law in NC blog posts has now officially started.

Recently, I had the privilege of writing on the subject of Private, Single Panel Arbitration on Chris Hill’s blog.  Please read the article if haven’t already. 

The first issue of my brand-spanking new newsletter, The Construction Professional, went out yesterday to those on the email list.  If you want to be one of the cool kids, be sure to sign up now by visiting the right hand side of the blog.  (Or, you can simply shoot me an email at mbrumback at rl-law dot com).

Finally, today’s post is a guest post by Susan Wells.  Susan is a freelance blogger who enjoys writing about automotive and health news, technology, lifestyle and personal finance. She often researches and writes about automobile, property and health insurance, helping consumers find free insurance quotes, and the best protection available. Susan and I welcome your thoughts and comments on this article.

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The Insurance Institute for Business and Home Safety (IBHS) sits on a 90-acre parcel of land in South Carolina. The research facility is dedicated to advancing building science by evaluating various residential and commercial construction materials and systems.

In layman’s terms, IBHS builds things and then attempts to destroy them by recreating conditions of natural disasters. In a studio-like production, the laboratory builds houses and then submits them to fire, wind, ice and water damage.

The IBHS research center even has a few videos on YouTube that demonstrate the effects of wind damage and fire.

two houses compared in wind damage situation

This destruction is an integral part of the construction industry as insurers work to identify risks and mitigate them through improved materials and structures. IBHS President Julie Rochman explains that the research center allows them to produce controlled experiments that are not being conducted anywhere else in the world. No longer forced to rely on case studies or opinions, the IBHS can record its findings and actively search for (and test) stronger systems.

Engineer Scott Sundberg explains the value of the research center in a single sentence, saying, “One test is worth a thousand expert opinions.”

To those at the IBHC, the information produced by these experiments is essential to advancing a sustainable community. Using hard data and conclusive evidence, such large-scale and detail oriented research allows the insurance and construction markets to focus on effective mitigation techniques. The average consumer will also have more access to product knowledge and has the potential to become more informed about products and strategies that can make their homes and buildings safer.

“Predictability and reliability of building materials and information is extremely important to the sustainability of the community, “says Mississippi Housing Director Gerald Bessey.

“Collectively as we apply these to public policy decisions and as the market place makes market choices. I think the market will react to good information that’s reliable and stable.”

In insurance underwriting laboratories like IBHS, disaster resistant and energy efficient technologies are merging to produce a new definition of sustainability.

Admittedly, there are few market standards for “green” products, and the FTC is actively working to mitigate the damage caused by “greenwashed” products that touted false claims of durability and environmental benefit. For uninformed consumers and construction managers, the wrong green system could put building structure at risk.

Some elements, such as vegetative roofs, can actually serve as fuel for fires or pose a threat under high winds. The IBHS proposes that energy efficiency and structural durability can work in tandem to create a truly sustainable product: one that will be environmentally friendly yet resilient in the face of environmental disasters.

One such recommendation is retrofitting older homes. Owners can replace windows and doors with energy efficient and wind resistant materials and seal energy leaks. Simple weatherization steps can actually help the average homeowner reach a new level of sustainability without rebuilding their home using entirely new green technology.

Interestingly, there are green insurance policies that allow policy holders to rebuild after a disaster using green upgrades. This would allow for recycling of debris, LEED certification as well as coverage for new appliances.

Most insurance policies do not currently consider products like wind-resistant glass to be a green upgrade, but as research begins to define standards of sustainability, it’s only a matter of time before green technologies and resistant materials merge to produce the highest standards of construction.

Thoughts? Comments? Questions?  Drop me an email or leave your musings below.

 

5 Reasons Why You Need Arbitration for a Construction Dispute (Guest Post)

Today we welcome another guest author to the blog– Jonathan Newby.  Jonathan is in the brokerage business, and runs a website relating to brokerage fees.  Thanks Jonathan for your sharing your thoughts today.

5 signArbitration may be a better alternative to some construction disputes, assuming that you use a qualified and skilled arbitrator or arbitration panel.  Here are five benefits for using arbitration over litigation:

  1. Arbitration means that the decision maker is an experienced industry professional instead of a lay jury.
  2. Arbitration can provide better protection for your assets by minimizing your risk of large losses sometimes seen with jury verdicts.
  3. Arbitration can provide flexibility in scheduling, versus court where you are told when and where to show up without much room to negotiate.
  4. Arbitration can put an end to your case faster.  The time taken by an arbitrator is usually less than that to get a case to court to resolve a construction dispute.
  5. Arbitration costs can be much less when compared to the one charged during any other legal process like litigation.

These are five reasons why arbitration may be better for your construction dispute, so consider using an arbitration provision in your next construction contract.

Editor’s Note:  As I’ve previously noted, there are pros and cons to arbitration in lieu of trial.  The better venue is in part based on the type and size of contract, as well as numerous other subjective considerations.  Discuss whether arbitration is appropriate for you with your construction law attorney.

Thoughts, comments, or questions?  Drop Jonathan or me a note in the comments section, below. 

Photo (c) freefoto.com.

 

 

Arbitrators are not King Solomon?

whoa signAfter my recent post on the pros and cons of court vs. arbitration, I was contacted by the American Arbitration Association (AAA).    They told me that, contrary to what is a widely held belief about panels “splitting the baby,” their internal studies actually show that is not, in fact, the case.   The summary of their findings is worth reading.

Now, I don’t know the particulars of their study protocol, and AAA is certainly not a disinterested party, but the numbers are impressive.  Perhaps AAA arbitration panels, at least, are not King Solomon.

Do you have a AAA arbitration experience?  Share it in the comments below.

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Photo “whoa” by stgermh via Flickr/Creative Commons license.

Should I stay or should I go now? (Court vs. Arbitration)- Updated

gavelShould I stay or should I go now?
If I go there will be trouble
And if I stay it will be double
So come on and let me know!

Are you wondering whether Court or Arbitration should be made a standard part of your construction contracts?  With apologies in advance to The Clash, there is “trouble” to be found in either venue. 

Some companies, and their lawyers, insist that American Aribtration Association (AAA) Arbitration is the only way to go.  Others prefer to take their chances in a local state court.  Who is right?  Neither, and both.  As with anything, there is a cost-benefit analysis that you should go through prior to making either a standard part of your construction contract.

Pluses and Minuses of Going to Court

If a dispute is brought in court, there is a standard, fully vetted set of statutes, case law, court rules, and procedures already in place.  A judge, unlike the typical arbitration panel, is generally more willing to consider defenses based on statue, such as the statute of limitations or the statute of repose.  Summary Judgment, in which a judge will (on occasion) grant a judgment for or against  a party without the necessity of the full blown jury trial, is possible.  Such dispositive, procedural rulings are extremely unlikely to be granted by an arbitration panel. 

On the other hand, a court trial means a jury verdict.  Unless the parties agree to waive their right to a jury trial, your case will be decided by true laymen who may have never set foot on a construction site before, and who will not understand the RFI, change order, and pay app process.  Terms like “substantial completion,” “critical path,” and “standard of care” will be foreign to them. 

I’ve seen some juries get it right, and I’ve seen some get it wrong.  Most jurors take their responsibilities extremely seriously and will try to apply the law as the judge instructs them.  But at the end of the day, you have people unfamiliar with industry standards determining your case.

Pluses and Minuses of Arbitration

Many standard construction contracts contain arbitration provisions, generally AAA Arbitration.  The typical arbitration includes a three member panel of experts (construction professionals, designers, construction attorneys) who hear the evidence and make a ruling.  That ruling has the full force of law.The reasoning behind such arbitration clauses is that industry professionals better understand the construction process, standards of care, and interrelationships on a complex construction project.  Theoretically, therefore, they are better able to determine the true root cause of damages or delay.

Arbitration is sometimes considered to be less expensive and less time consuming than a court trial.  The arbitration panel generally sets fairly loose procedural and evidentiary boundaries, and tends to allow into evidence things that might not meet the strict Rules of Evidence that a court would apply.  Some of these generalities, however, have not proven to be true in practice.  AAA Arbitration can be costly– the filing of a claim alone is costlier than typical court fees.  Case managers add a layer of bureaucracy to the process.   Arbitration panels also generally are more prone to “split the baby” in a close case.

Which is Better?

The answer to that question is a clear and concise, “it depends.”  It depends on the facts of your particular case, the jurisdiction you are in, the type of panel you may get, and numerous other things completely out of your control.  Consult with a lawyer in your jurisdiction to discuss the pros and cons of each, and which may be right for your particular situation.

Do you have experience with court or arbitration?  Personal preference?  I’d love to hear your thoughts on the subject in the comment section below.

UPDATE 10/13/2010:  The AAA responded to this article citing their internal studies showing arbitration panels do not often “split the baby”.  See more here

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Photo “Courtroom One Gavel” by Joe Gratz via Flickr/Creative Commons license.

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