Dear Engineer: Has your insurer issued a “Reservation of Rights” letter? (law note)

In my previous post, I made reference to getting a  “Reservation of Rights” letter.   I noted that the carrier may decide to defend you under a Reservation of Rights (i.e., hire your lawyer) but may not, necessarily, accept the responsibility for paying the claim.  Does this mean that the insurance company has denied your claim, or will never pay?  No.

Reservation of Rights (ROR) letters are sent for a variety of reasons- most notably, when some portion of the construction lawsuit against you is not covered under your E&O policy.  The letter must state the reason(s) that the ROR is being issued.

With the ROR, the insurance company is telling you that it reserves the right to withdraw from your defense and/or deny payment of damages at a later date, depending upon how facts in the case develop.  The notice is intended to let you know that there *may* be issues later, and to put you notice that  you have the right to hire your own lawyer (at your own expense) to protect yourself from that future potential risk.

How should you react to getting a ROR letter?  You should review it with your own lawyer, and consider retaining your lawyer to work with the lawyer the insurance carrier retains to protect your rights.

Is this required?  No.  Your insurance-retained lawyer still owes you the duty to protect your interests.  If the insurance company decides to later withdraw from defense, or seek a court ruling that they do not owe you a defense, your insurance-provided lawyer cannot represent the insurance company against you.  The insurance company would need to hire a different lawyer/law firm to make that argument.

It is never pleasant to get a ROR letter, but it is not unusual, depending on the particular facts in your case.  And it doesn’t mean that you won’t have a vigorous defense, or that the insurance-retained lawyer is not working for you.  They are, and they will.  However, it is never bad advise to have your own personal lawyer weigh in on the ROR letter and its ramifications for your Firm.

Have you ever gotten a ROR letter from your insurance carrier?  If so, share in the comment section, below.  And, be sure to get your White Paper on 7 Critical Mistakes that Architects & Engineers make, by filling out the form on the right hand side of the blog page. 

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.

 

Anatomy of a Construction Errors & Omissions Lawsuit (law note)

hard hatsAs regular readers here know, my aim is to keep you out of court.  However, when that is not possible, it is important that you understand the process and procedure for how you will get sued, what happens then, and when there might finally be resolution.

Previously, I explained this process in detail in a series of posts entitled Law & Order: Hard Hat Files.  For newer readers and for reference, here are all sections of the 9 part series (really, 10 parts, with the introduction).

If you’d prefer to download a pdf instead of the above links, go here.

Your turn.  Have you ever been sued for professional errors and omissions?  Wish something else had been explained?  Share, below.

Of backwoods towns, train-wrecks, and feuding neighbors (i.e., an Email warning) (law note)

Train WreckWhat is it about train-wrecks that we all slow down to rubber-neck the blood, guts, and gore?  Whatever the reason, we all love to watch a good fight– especially those on-line, where people treat one another less than human.

A recent neighborhood list serve that I am a part of just had a particularly vicious debate between two people who, had they met over a cup of coffee instead of on-line, would at least have been civil to each other.  Instead, they sent verbal barbs back and forth to one another over (of all things) a door-to-door solicitor.  With the whole neighborhood watching.  What does this have to do with your professional career as an engineer or architect?  Glad you asked.  First, just a taste of the exchange:

Aggrieved Neighbor #1: 

I’m sorry for your view of the world and clear lack of broad social intelligence.  You add to the problem and underline the unnecessary drama applied to most modern dialect.  Please go get a few more degrees to convince yourself of your own intelligence.

Aggrieved Neighbor #2:

Nice ad hominem.  I never suggested that you or anyone else on this thread was lacking intelligence or motivated by ill will. Based on your last response, I still wouldn’t say that you’re lacking intelligence, but you are kind of a @#$%. Have a lovely day.

 

That was fun, wasn’t it?  Now, back to how this relates to your work.  These neighbors KNEW that others would see their remarks- hence the nature of a list-serve.  Now, how often do you send an email internally, not intending anyone other than your colleagues to see it?  Often, right?  Do you ever say anything inappropriate in the emails?  Off-color joke?  Tongue-in-cheek comment about the client?

Let’s say you’ve just had it with a particularly offensive client, and send your colleague this email:

Guess who changed his mind again?  That’s right, Mr. Wishy-Washy himself.  Need to revise the latest plans for the lobby area to include an extra work station.  Thanks!

Nothing too bad about that, right?  Would you like to have to explain why you are calling the client names in a deposition?  Cause every one of those emails is discoverable.

Here’s another one (modified from a real life example), sent to a former classmate in Faraway State:

Hey, Joe!  I hear that Mr. X is moving from Faraway to Random Town, North Carolina to run the Operations Facility There.  What happened to get Mr. X sent to a backwater town like Random Town, NC– hand caught in the cookie jar?  Drop me a line when you get a chance.

 

This email (modified ONLY slightly to prevent embarrassment by the persons involved) was actually part of discovery in a case I handled.  Now, imagine explaining to a local jury why you called them a “backwater town”.  The thing is, my client did not mean anything at all by the email– he was just ribbing his former classmate.  You know, the type of thing you do over a glass of beer.  Except here, it was documented.  For the other side.  For the court.  For the jury.

Keep these examples in mind when you are writing anything.  It’s the old New York Times rule— if it isn’t something you’d be happy to have your Grandma read about you in the NY Times, then don’t put it in writing.

Your future self will thank you.

Your turn.  Ever write or get an email that made you wince?  Think twice before sending those missives.  Jokes do not translate well in a construction lawsuit!

 

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!!!!!

 

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