Do I really need my own lawyer if the insurer is giving me one? (law note; tip)

Several readers have reached out to me about my post on getting a Reservation of Rights letter with comments and questions.  The most common refrain has been something along the lines of: “Do I really have to hire my own lawyer after paying insurance premiums just because I got one of those pesky ROR letters?”

not break bankThe short answer is that you do not *have* to hire your own lawyer.  But, it can be very useful.  And, it can be done economically so you don’t have to break the piggy bank.  You see, if you hire your own lawyer, they can be “back up” and simply monitor the lawsuit, while the insurance-retained lawyer does the yeoman’s work.  That way, if the insurance carrier begins to make noise about filing a declaratory judgment to deny the claim, you have your own lawyer already in place, knowledgeable about what’s happened in the case from the get-go.  But if the insurance company never “pulls the trigger” on denying the claim, then your private lawyer’s involvement (and bill) will be minimal.

Is there still a cost associated with having your own private lawyer involved?  Of course.  But the costs can be small, while still giving you protection should you need it down the road.  Think of it as just one more safety mechanism for your Firm.

I’ve been on both sides of the lawyer role– I’ve served as the private lawyer, and I’ve served as the insurance-retained lawyer.  Either way, it is a very workable solution with some very real benefits for the design community.

Have you retained your own lawyer in a “ROR” situation?  Share in the comment section below, or drop me an email.

Photo (c) TaxRebate via Creative Commons, with alterations

 

“Professional Best Efforts” part 2– Reservation of Rights for Engineers who agree to “best” efforts? (law note)

reservedRecently, a reader reached out to me to ask about case examples of an engineer losing his insurance coverage because he agreed to a “heightened” or “best” standard of care. The reader stated that he was an insurance adviser who handled various construction professional coverages, and that in his experience it was very unusual to deny or limit damages because of a heightened standard of care.

This comment led me to an informal survey of several insurance brokers that I deal with, and the general consensus is that instead of outright denying a claim, most E&O insurers will issue a “reservation of rights” letter. What that means is that the insurance company will defend the claim (i.e., pay for your lawyer to defend you and your Firm), but with the understanding that they are (potentially) denying any liability for any adverse money judgment against you.

Inevitably, most such cases settle, but if they do not, the question then is whether the heightened duty created part of the damages. The insurer may ask to intervene in the lawsuit to ask the jury that question, in an effort to limit its share of the damages.

The reader commented that he could see two related insurance limitations: (1) where the professional agreed to be liable, and (2) where the professional refused to consent to settle a claim. In such cases, many policies contain a “hammer clause” which limits the insurer’s liability and defense costs to that which would have resulted had the insured accepted the settlement.

While these are interesting fact situations to the insurance and/or law geeks among us, for those of you who would rather spend your days designing and engineering instead of in court,  the best practice still remains the same:  avoid agreeing to the highest professional standards. Being the “test case” for a novel legal issue is not in your best interest.

Thoughts? Comments? Experiences in such situations? Share in the comment section or drop me an email.

Changes to your Scope of Services on the Construction Project (law note)

change!Our office is in the middle of a large renovation.  It’s been several months of drilling, sawing, painting, carpeting– you name it.  I’m proud to say that we have had not one change to the scope of work during that time.  <insert maniacal laughter here>.  Okay, that’s simply not true.  Change–like death, taxes, and bodily functions–happens.

In the same way that incoming wave will soon destroy that sand-written “change” sign in the picture that accompanies this post, change will happen in all parts of a construction project.

As the architect or engineer of record, you undoubtedly have a thoughtful, well-written contract or proposal.  Ideally, your contract states exactly what is, and is not, included.  But inevitably, something will slip through the cracks.  A likely scenario: the owner asks for “just a small change over here,” “one more quick site visit” over there, and hey, what’s a few extra months of contract administration among friends, right?

Whenever you experience such “scope creep”, document it.  Ask how compensation will be handled up front.  Even a quick email to the owner, stating that you’d be happy to make that extra site visit and will invoice per the contract, will make the owner aware that you expect compensation.   Have the discussion before the work is done.  When they are likely to say “great- how soon can you do it?”.  Or, if they don’t expect to pay you for your extra services, they’ll tell you that.  Either way, you’ll know what the expectations are for payment.  And, should you not get the payment later on, you have a nice piece of written evidence to show a judge or jury.

Your turn.  Have you experienced “scope creep” on a project?  How did you handle it?  Comment below, or drop me a line.  New readers: Check out the white paper on 7 Critical Mistakes that Design Professionals Make, available for free download on the right hand side of the page.

 

Photo “Change in the Sand” (c) Melissa Brumback. Creative Commons License

Can You Change the Scope of Work? Not in a bidding situation! (reader comment)

biddingSetting the Right Expectations for Owner Clients is a must, as I recently wrote in my post discussing Scope of Work clauses.

According to construction consultant Tony Frisby,* scope of work issues are more important than general conditions in the management of a project.

Tony notes, however, that it is not always possible to change Scope of Work clauses in every situation:

“For example, if bidding on advertised procurement, any modifications in the bid may very well be a basis of rejection as non-responsive; the subcontractor is bound the same rule as to the scope of work in the general contract.  In negotiated contracts, two step and design build, of course, the contractor can delineate modifications or exclusions.

In subcontract agreements, we recommend that a Scope Letter do exactly what you have indicated, with emphasis on duties by others, such as hoisting and services provided by others.  Obviously, we recommend the deletion of ridiculous clauses such as No Damages for Delay.”

Tony’s point is a valid one– those dealing with a Bidding situation cannot change the Scope of Work.  Most architects & engineers enjoy more flexibility here than contractors, and can work on scope of work as part of an Request for Proposal response.  Tony’s point about subcontractor agreements is equally applicable to agreements with subconsultants as well.

* Tony Frisby specializes in prevention and non-judicial resolution of construction disputes.  He also assists companies in organizational improvements.

Agree? Disagree?  Share your thoughts with Tony and me, below.

Photo credit: Financial Times via Creative Commons license.

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.

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