Certificates of Merit for NC lawsuits against engineers and architects? (still no)(law note)

Certificates of Merit  are documents intended to show that a true issue exists with a professional’s work, prior to that person being sued.  While North Carolina does require that a person suing a medical provider first have the matter reviewed by a professional (and attest to that in the Complaint), there is no requirement for any review prior to a lawsuit against an architect, engineer, or surveyor.  Thus, anyone can file a lawsuit against an engineer/architect/surveyor without first having their case eyeballed reviewed by another professional. magnifying glass

Over the years, there have been attempts at adding a Certificate of Merit requirement to design professional lawsuits.  See, for example, examples here: from 2005; from 2007from 2011; and from 2013.

While many states do have Certificates of Merit for lawsuits against licensed design professionals, North Carolina, to date, does not.  This is a shame, because having a professional review a potential error *before* a party spends the time and money to file a lawsuit, can only help eliminate frivolous, merit-less claims.   To win a lawsuit against a design professional, a party will need to have an expert testify that they were negligent.  The Certificate of Merit just ensures that there truly is a valid dispute before a design professional’s name and reputation get pulled into expensive, perhaps unnecessary, litigation.

Would a requirement for a Certificate of Merit eliminate unnecessary claims?  Perhaps not.  But, it gives all parties an honest “first look” at the alleged design errors before the lawyers sharpen their claws begin filing their lawsuits.

Share your thoughts on such certificates in the comments, below.

 

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

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

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.

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