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.

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.

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