“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.

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.

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.

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

Engineering for the Earthquake- Dumbarton Bridge (News Note)

Engineers who design in earthquake-prone areas know that they need to design the seismic loads of their bridges to account for potential massive shifts during a quake.  (This is what is legally known as the professional standard of care, which takes into account what similar engineers, in the same conditions and community, would consider acceptable design)**.  The Dumbarton Bridge, the farthest south bridge across the San Francisco Bay, is no exception to this rule.

Currently, the Dumbarton Bridge is being renovated as part of the San Francisco Bay Area Toll Bridge Seismic Retrofit Program.  When the bridge is finished (expected in early 2013), the bridge will increase its ability to move from 20 inches of lateral movement to as much as 42 inches of lateral movement.

Dumbarton BridgeThe retrofit includes friction pendulum bearings designed by Earthquake Protection  Systems, Inc., which will isolate the superstructure from two pier structures where the main span of the bridge meets the approach structures.  A concrete taper will be used from the joints to the main span to ease the transition, as the approach span is 5 inches lower than the main span.

According to Earthquake Protection Systems president Victor Zayas, in a statement to Roads & Bridges magazine, the most critical part of the bearing is the bottom lining, which is a self-sacrificing, solid-lubricant polymer composite that was developed based on earlier research done by NASA in the 1960s.

Click here to read more on the Dumbarton Bridge retrofit.

**  If you missed my post on the jury instruction on standard of care, be sure to check it out here.

 

Photo (c) Jill Clardy via CC.

 

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