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.

For Engineers & Architects: Top 10 Construction Law in NC Blog Posts

top10Since I have so many newer readers here at Construction Law NC, I thought a brief summary of some of the most popular posts might be helpful.  (I have also added this list to the About Me & Contact Info page, in case you want to refer to it later).

Presented below are the top 10 posts by popularity (although the list does fluctuate some):

  1. “Substantial Completion” on the Construction Project: How is it defined?  (always a popular post; owners want every last paint scratch fixed before they are willing to consider the project complete)
  2. The Sticky Statute of Limitations in NC  (the general rule: 3 years from date of service; however, there are many exceptions)
  3. Statute of Repose: Putting your Risk to Bed  (after 6 years, in North Carolina, even the exceptions to statutes of limitations don’t help)
  4. Planning Ahead for Additional Compensation  (money; cause, we all need to get paid!)
  5. Spring Cleaning: 6 Contract law tips for limiting risk on construction projects  (contracts are the first step in limiting your risk- read here to learn how to make them effective)
  6. How to Smartly Handle Project Documents  (your policies and procedures with documents can make or break a lawsuit)
  7. The Architect’s and Engineer’s “Standard of Care”  (note: perfection is NOT the standard!)
  8. Design Error and the Spearin Doctrine (why your designs must actually, you know, work!)
  9. Active vs. Passive Negligence (sharing the blame, unequally, when something goes wrong)
  10. Adding an “Additional Insured” in the Professional Services Agreement: an exercise in futility!  (for those times when you have an obtuse owner- show them this!)

Are there other posts that you think should be added to this “Best of” collection?  Wish I had written a post on your pet topic?  Share below.

Photo (c) Independent Association of Businesses.

Setting the Right Expectations for your Owner Client– Craft your Scope of Work well (law note)

belt & suspendersRegular readers of this blog know that you absolutely should have a written contract, and not rely on “gentlemen’s agreements.”  But what is the most important part of your agreement to provide professional services?  The dispute resolution provision? Payment terms? Change Order requirements?  All of those are important.  I’d argue, however, that the Scope of Work provision is, if not the most important term, one of the key terms.  Face it– once you  have a good set of standard contract terms, they rarely need to be drastically rewritten for each individual project.  But each and every time you start a new project, whether for a long-time client or a new owner, you are defining the Scope of Work.

This is where paying attention up front can save you headaches down the road.  I often refer to the belt & suspenders approach— you want to both be very clear in describing the scope of work, and equally clear in describing exclusions to your services.  That way, everyone knows what is expected up front, and you can hopefully avoid litigation pitfalls down the road.

Bill Beardslee of Davis Martin Powell has coined a nice mnemonic for Scope that is very apt:

S C O P E

Sufficiently

Control

Other

Peoples

Expectations

 

Your turn. Do you carefully craft your Scope of Work for each new Project?  You should.  If you need help in crafting your Scopes of Work, drop me a line. 

 

 

Even a text can make a contract! (law note)

text message bubblesI’ve written many times about how you should–indeed, must–document your construction project in case there are problems or disputes later on.  Of course, you need to update the plans and specs.  But equally important, you need to document agreements to do things outside of the contract documents and also all verbal directives from the owner.

Tennessee lawyer Matt Devries recently wrote a nice blog post entitled:  LOL! OMG. HUH? Court Finds That Text Message Can Form Binding Contract, discussing  how even text messages can be legally binding.  Something to remember, and learn from.  I always tell clients I’d like to see any deviations signed by all parties, but failing that, a fax or email will do.  Just don’t rely on a conversation alone.  Texts are *not* the preferred method of documenting something for the court, but they are better than nothing.

Read Matt’s post and drop him a line.  And comment below if you’ve ever considered using text messages to establish a written record of agreements.

Photo courtesy Pixabay.

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