Agree to use your “professional best” ? You may lose insurance coverage! (law note)

mistakesYesterday, I was part of a panel at the NC Bar Association Construction Law Winter Meeting, discussing insurance issues for design professionals.

One topic we touched on was how to avoid invalidating your insurance.  As most of you know, Errors & Omissions insurance (“E&O” coverage)  is meant to provide coverage for mistakes you may make in performing your professional architecture or engineering services.  E&O coverage is important to protect you in the event of a lawsuit because, as you know, no set of plans is perfect (nor is perfection the standard of care).

Be careful, though.  Do not promise to provide a higher standard of care than the “professional standard“.

If you are asked to sign a contract that states you will use your “professional best,” “best efforts”, “highest care” or similar, you are being asked to sign something that could cost you your E&O coverage.

Examples of such language:

[Architect] [Engineer] shall perform the Services in accordance with the highest standards of professional competence in the industry.

[Architect] [Engineer] shall exercise a high degree of care and diligence in providing the professional services.

Architect’s] [Engineer’s] services shall be of first class quality and free from defects.

E&O policies cover you for failing to meet professional standards, but not in cases where you agree by contract to provide a higher/better/best standard. 

Explain the risks in such language to your owner clients.  No owner will want to put your insurance policy in jeopardy, and they should be willing to strike or modify that language to ensure that your work on the construction project is fully protected and covered by your E&O policy.

Some examples of coverable standards:

All services to be performed shall be performed in a manner consistent with that level of care and skill ordinarily exercised by members of Designer’s profession.

All services shall be performed in a manner consistent with that level of care and skill ordinarily exercised by members of Designer’s profession currently practicing in the location of the project for which the services are rendered, or similar locations.

Remember this, and make sure your future construction contracts contain favorable language that will actually be insurable.  You know– the whole reason you have professional liability insurance in the first place!

Have you ever been asked to agree to provide your best efforts?  How did you handle the situation?  Share in the space below.

They threatened to sue! What do I do? (Law note on construction disputes)

dont panicI just spent some time answering emails from folks worried because they’ve been threatened with a lawsuit over a construction project gone bad.   They want to know:

Can they do that?

What can they get?

But what if I have a good defense?

These are all good questions.  The short answer is that anyone can sue anyone else in America for anything, at almost any time.  HOWEVER, the law is not (generally) a fool.   If someone sues you, but you have a defense or their claim is not well-founded, they almost certainly will not prevail.

Does this mean you can relax?  No, it doesn’t.  You still must take any lawsuit (no matter how ill-conceived) seriously.   Here is what you do:

1. Report any lawsuits, or threats of lawsuits, to your insurance carrier if it involves your errors & omissions professional liability insurance.  Even if you are not sure if it involves E&O claims, report it anyhow.  Early reporting costs nothing but a few minutes of your time. Late reporting could mean you are denied insurance coverage.

2.File an Answer to any lawsuit within the time frame provided.  In North Carolina state court, that is generally 30 days from the date you were “served”, although if you follow certain procedures you can get that extended to day 60.  In North Carolina Federal Court (it will say on the Summons whether it is state or federal, and almost but not all construction disputes are state court), you have 20 days to respond (with extensions allowed if you follow certain other procedures).

Questions?  Leave a comment or shoot me an email.

 

Lessons from a Diner: Up Front Costs can Save You Money in your Engineering Practice (law note)

greekgrilled.jpgI happen to frequent a place in my hometown called Elmo’s Diner.  A lot.  As in, many of the servers know me by name.  The food is good, yes.  The selection is great.  But there is a much more important reason that I go there over and over again– the service.  Elmo’s seems to always have enough staff on hand, and they also work together to make sure your wait is never very long.

There are some other places in town that skimp on hiring waiters and waitresses.  I guess they figure, the fewer they have working at any one time, the less money they have to pay out.  Even though, of course, waiter minimum wage is much lower than regular minimum wage due to the tip factor.  But some of these other places (who shall remain unnamed) really do seem to have the mindset that they will save money by not hiring enough staff for the number of customers.

Maybe that thinking works for them- in the short run.  Do you know how much money I spend at Elmo’s Diner?  Let’s just put it this way– I really should invest in direct deposit with them!  These other places?  I forget, and go to them every now and again, thinking, it can’t be all bad, right?  And almost always, I remember why I do NOT go to them.

Now, back to construction.  Many professional service firms are like the unmentionable restaurants above– they skimp on things that “cost money”.  Notably, in two areas (1) professional liability insurance (errors & omissions coverage), and (2) getting legal assistance at the beginning of a project.  These architects & engineers are making the same short-sighted mistake, thinking they are “saving money.”  And yet, very often, in the long run they are costing themselves money– in contract disputes, legal wrangling at project end, or in paying out of pocket for large claims.

You should have E&O insurance if you are a working professional.  Period.  You should also have your contracts and proposals reviewed by a lawyer.  Preferably, before any major new undertaking.  The up front costs are small, but the impact can be huge.  Just ask anyone at Elmo’s.

Your turn.  Are there places that you frequent because of their superior service?  Do the extra costs seem to pay for themselves over time?  Share below. 

Is your design professional construction contract too friendly? (law note)

not friendlyMy husband often travels the back roads between Chapel Hill and Fuquay Varina to visit friends.  En route (a circuitous route that goes past Sharon Harris Nuclear Power Plant, among other places), he passes by the “Friendly Grocery”.  For those who haven’t had the pleasure, here is a photo of the side of the building in all its glory.

In case you cannot read the list of forbidden activities, I’m re-printed them here (complete with spelling error):

not friendly sign

I’m not sure which is the “friendly” part of that sign.  In fact, the sign seems to be the antithesis of friendly.

What does this have to do with your construction contracts?  Sometimes, in an effort to please the client and/or secure the project, architects and engineers have the habit of being too friendly in their contract language.  That is, you make promises or proposals that may promise too much of a good thing for the client.  This can cause big problems.  Bigger than being towed away from a rural grocery store in the middle of nowhere.  You could be putting your insurance coverage at risk.

Have you ever promised to use “best efforts” in your design or plans?  Promised to design to a specific LEED standard?  Guaranteed 100% satisfaction?  You might be putting your errors & omission coverage at issue.  By warrantying or guaranteeing something, you are assuming a level of liability well beyond the standard of care required by law.  By law, you only need to conform to the standard of care, and your insurance will only provide coverage up to that standard of care.  In other words, if you make guarantees or promise “best efforts,” you are contracting to something that will *not* be insured.  If something goes wrong, you will be without the benefit of your professional liability coverage.

Instead, make sure that your contracts, and proposals, are not too friendly to the client.  Sure, agree to work in accordance with the standard of care of professional architects/engineers.   But don’t make guarantees, or promise “best” efforts.  In fact, you might want to educate your client on why you cannot make such guarantees, and why anyone who does (i.e., your competition) is putting their insurance coverage at risk.  Owners want and need you to stay within the bounds of your coverage.  You need to, also.  Maybe the owner of the Friendly Grocery was on to something there.

Your turn.  Have you ever used language that jeopardized your insurance protection?  Uncertain if you have?  Drop me a line and we can talk.

Photo (c) Melissa Brumback  Creative Commons License

Adding an “Additional Insured” in the Professional Services Agreement: an exercise in futility! (law note)

As an architect or engineer,  you may be asked to sign a contract that has a requirement of adding the Owner (or Contractor, in a design-build project) to your own insurance as an “additional insured”.  This is usually a fall out of the fact that the Owner is treating you like a contractor and using “stock” contract language.  It is not appropriate, nor sometimes even possible, to add the Owner to your professional liability policy.

This is beacuse professional liability insurance only provides coverage for “professional services”.  That is, if it is even possible to buy such coverage, it won’t work to avoid any risks the Owner is seeking to avoid, because the Owner is not providing licensed architectural or engineering services on the Project.

In fact, because of the way professional liability policies are generally written, naming the project Owner as an additional insured essentially voids any coverage for the owner for your Firm’s design errors & omissions.

What should you do with a stubborn Owner who insists he wants to be an additional insured under your E&O policy?  Explain the facts to him, and point out he is risking voiding coverage all together.  Tell him to call me, or point out this post to him.  Also, several insurance brokers, agents, and companies have simple one or two page information sheets that you can provide to the Owner to help with his education.

Remember, having an “Additional Insured” in an Errors & Omissions policy is a true exercise in futility.  It may not be what the Owner wants to hear, but such is life!not want to hear

 

Question time:  have you ever been asked to add an Owner to your E&O insurance?  How did you handle it?  Share in the comments section, below. 

And if you haven’t already, be sure to download your free white paper on the 7 Critical Mistakes that Architects & Engineers make– it’s in the box on the top right hand side of the blog.

 

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