How your disgruntled client can turn into your very own car crash! (and how to avoid it)

Over the summer, I was involved in a car crash.  It was *not* my fault– heck, I wasn’t even driving but riding shotgun.  But it wasn’t my husband’s fault either.  A guy pulling out of a parking lot was watching the traffic coming up the road, but failed to see our car sitting in the same intersection waiting to turn into the same parking lot.  He ran right into us.  Here was the damage:

car damage

 

It may not look like much, but the panels were so damaged it cost almost $9k in damages, over a month of car rental fees, and a LOT of aggravation on our part.  The guy who hit us was very nice, apologized, and was concerned if we were injured.  His insurance company ultimately paid for all of the damage.  However– it wasn’t he who suddenly got a new part time job– that was me.  I had to spend lots of time with police, insurance representatives, auto body mechanics, rental car places, you name it.  If you’ve ever been in an accident, you know the headache involved.  In fact, I have had 2 other accidents over the years (again, neither of which were my fault– I think I’m just a beacon for bad drivers?).  One of those accidents was a 4 car accident– a driver hit my car, pushing it into the car ahead, which went into the car ahead of that.  In that accident, my car was actually totaled.  Fun times!

How is this relevant to your life as an architect or engineer?  If you stay in the game (that is, the design field) long enough, chances are, you will, at some point, end up dealing with disgruntled clients.  One of those clients may even file a lawsuit against you.  Or, for that matter, you may end up getting sued by another party involved in your construction projects– one that you don’t even have a contract with.

If that happens, you too will have a new part-time job– working on your defense.  Think meetings with your attorneys, calls with your insurance adjuster, unbilled time sitting for deposition, searches through all of your project emails and files, and the potential for a long jury trial (again, unbillable time for you).  Sounds fun, doesn’t it?  Maybe even makes you want to scream with the unfairness of it all.

The thing is, while there are certain things you can do to minimize your risks of being sued and your chances of prevailing if you are sued, even if you win, you’ve lost in time and opportunities.  In a fair system, you wouldn’t face this for unfair or frivolous claims.  In a fair system, I wouldn’t have to spend hours dealing with the fall out of an accident I didn’t cause.  But sometimes, stuff happens.

Just like there are ways of minimizing your risk of car accidents (turn signals, watching for inattentive drivers) and reducing damage when they occur (using seat belts, driving slower), there are also ways to minimize your risk of a lawsuit and reducing your damage when they do occur.

Some ideas:

  1. Have a written contract for every project, every time
  2. Get that contract reviewed by your insurance carrier and lawyer
  3. Be sure to specify what you will, and will not be doing in your scope of work  (being redundant is good here!)
  4. Establish clear payment terms, and expectations about fees for additional services, up front.
  5. Have good document management systems in place, which you’ll need for if/when litigation does occur
  6. Be aware of warning signs that there may be a lawsuit in your future; and
  7. If you do get sued, don’t panic, but take some steps to help your case get off on the right foot

But remember, when all is said and done:  you place your bets and roll the wheel.  Sometimes, your number comes up.  While these tips cannot prevent being sued by a disgruntled client, they can lessen the risk and impact.  And that is *almost* as good as getting your car fixed, returning the rental to the shop, and quitting your new part time job!

Have you had to suffer through an unfair lawsuit from a disgruntled client or third party?  Tips you wish you had known earlier?  Concerns about your own contracts?  Share in the comments below or drop me an email at mbrumback@rl-law.com.

Photo: Creative Commons License

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.

Apologize for a design error? (law note)

SorryHave you ever apologized to a client for a failure in your professional work? Is that a good idea, or one that will get you in trouble with your partners/ lawyers/ insurance carrier/ the Court? As always, the answer is “it depends”.

Clients are people too. Even institutional clients are made up of people, and all people appreciate being told the truth and having a sincere apology when warranted. However, in general, anything that is said against your own interests can be used against you in Court. What’s a responsible engineer or architect to do?

Last week, I attended a thoughtful presentation on apologies by Burns Logan, Corporate Counsel for Jacobs, at the American Bar Association’s Construction Law Forum. Burns Logan

Burns’ main take aways:

1. You don’t have to actually say you are “sorry” (especially if you aren’t) to get the benefit of the strategy. You only have to include an explanation, accept responsibility, and make a reasonable offer of repair.

2. Deliver the “apology” in mediation where you don’t run the risk of it being used against you as evidence in court (most apology statutes don’t help in construction-related disputes)

 

The second point is key– mediation in most states (including North Carolina) is confidential.  Nothing can be quoted or held against you if it is part of mediation.  So, consider taking responsibility (with explanation), but do so at your mediation conference.

If you’d like to see Burns’ entire slide show, it can be found here.  Thanks, Burns, for a very informative presentation.

Questions/thoughts/comments?  Share below, or drop me an email.

“Sorry” photo (c) myguitarzz via Creative Commons. 

Betterment on the Construction Project (law note)

betterToday’s post is thanks to a discussion with an engineer following a talk I gave for the ASCE of North Carolina.  He asked about owners trying to recover for obvious mistakes, for which they’d have to pay anyhow.

That brought me to the topic of betterment.  What is betterment, and why is it important in the construction world?

Betterment is a legal concept that says, even if your plan is missing something, if the owner would have had to pay for that missing item anyhow, they cannot get money from you.

A real life example:  A designer’s set of plans showed sanitary sewer extending out 8 feet from the building footprint.  It did not show the sewer connecting to the city sewer line.  The owner later complained because it had to pay the contractor for a change order for the connection.  However, since the owner would have had to pay for the connection regardless, the owner could not recover from the designer for the missing sewer connection.  [Had the owner paid a premium due to the fact that the missing connection was discovered during construction, that premium over and above normal costs could have been recoverable.]

Betterment, then, is a defense to a claim of defective plans, because even if the plans are defective, the defect did not cost the owner any additional money.

It can be a tricky concept to explain–even some plaintiff’s lawyers that I’ve dealt with fail to understand the concept.  However, it is an important part of many defenses.

Questions?  Comments?  Ever experienced a “betterment” situation yourself?  Share in the comments section, below.

 

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!!!!!