Can a designer limit his liability to his fees for service?

Architects and engineers (and the owners/contractors with whom they contract) often wonder whether limiting liability language is enforceable.  The answer, as in much of construction law, is very much dependent on what state’s court will be interpreting the contract.  Some states allow such limiting language, and others do not.  Josh Glazov’s Construction Law Today blog recently tackled the enforceability of such provisions in the context of a recent Illinois case, in which the Illinois court found such limitations perfectly acceptable, so long as they (1) are not “unconscionable” and (2) do not violate public policy.

sign: proceed at own risk

North Carolina takes a very similar approach to such limitations of liability.  Here, so long as the limitation of liability is not also an agreement to be liable for the other party’s negligence (which is barred as against public policy), such a limitation of liability is enforceable.  A case discussing this issue from the engineering perspective is Blaylock Grading Co., LLP v. Smith et al, 189 N.C. App. 508, 658 S.E.2d 680 (2008).  In that case, a surveying engineer limited his liability, via contract, to $50,000.  The Court, citing an earlier state Supreme Court decision, ruled that the limitation was valid and enforceable:

People should be entitled to contract on their own terms without the indulgence of paternalism by courts in the alleviation of one side or another from the effects of a bad bargain.  Also, they should be permitted to enter into contracts that actually may be unreasonable or which may lead to hardship on one side.  It is only where it turns out that one side or the other is to be penalized by the enforcement of the terms of a contract so unconscionable that no decent, fairminded person would view the ensuing result without being possessed of a profound sense of injustice, that equity will deny the use of its good offices in the enforcement of such unconscionability.  Id. at 511, 658 S.E.2d at 682.

Is this rule absolute?  Clearly not, as the above quote indicates.  Unconscionable limitations will not be enforced.  Moreover, a third party, not subject to the contractual terms, is free to sue in negligence.  But as between the contracting parties, such a limitation on damages can be a powerful tool to minimize exposure to risk.

Questions about limitations on liability?  Comment below or drop me a line.  And be sure to sign up for email delivery of blog posts directly to your inbox.


Photo:  “Proceed at own risk” by Dave Nicoll via Flickr/Creative Commons license 

Lien Law Changes Ahead? Add your voice!

How a Bill Becomes a LawAre you familiar with North Carolina lien law provisions?  Ever think they should be changed and updated?  You are not alone.   The NC Bar Association (through the Lien Law Revision Committee of the Construction Section) is in the process of preparing substantive changes to a proposed new Lien Law statute.  The committee is aiming to have a prepared piece of legislation drafted for consideration in the upcoming legislative session of the General Assembly.

According to the Lien Law Committee, revisions to the statute are needed for several reasons, including:

  • handling the uncertainty created by recent Bankruptcy court decisions relating to liens
  • reexaming the “relation back” and “double payment” issues in current lien law
  • reexaming the long form lien waivers and current problems with those waivers

Last week, at the Design Professionals Lliason Committee (another Construction Section committee), I was given a copy of the lien law draft proposal for a revision to the lien law.  The Lien Law Committee wants their proposals to be discussed by the construction industry, so that all sides can be fully vested in the new lien process.

Review the proposal and let me know what you think.  The proposal contains some rather large changes to the lien statute.  Are these good, bad, or irrelevant to your business?  Email me or comment below with any thoughts, questions, suggestions, or concerns.  I will pass all comments along to the Lien Law committee.


Photo “How a Bill Becomes a Law” by Peter Merholtz via Flickr/Creative Commons license.

Arbitrators are not King Solomon?

whoa signAfter my recent post on the pros and cons of court vs. arbitration, I was contacted by the American Arbitration Association (AAA).    They told me that, contrary to what is a widely held belief about panels “splitting the baby,” their internal studies actually show that is not, in fact, the case.   The summary of their findings is worth reading.

Now, I don’t know the particulars of their study protocol, and AAA is certainly not a disinterested party, but the numbers are impressive.  Perhaps AAA arbitration panels, at least, are not King Solomon.

Do you have a AAA arbitration experience?  Share it in the comments below.


Photo “whoa” by stgermh via Flickr/Creative Commons license.

Should I stay or should I go now? (Court vs. Arbitration)- Updated

gavelShould I stay or should I go now?
If I go there will be trouble
And if I stay it will be double
So come on and let me know!

Are you wondering whether Court or Arbitration should be made a standard part of your construction contracts?  With apologies in advance to The Clash, there is “trouble” to be found in either venue.

Some companies, and their lawyers, insist that American Aribtration Association (AAA) Arbitration is the only way to go.  Others prefer to take their chances in a local state court.  Who is right?  Neither, and both.  As with anything, there is a cost-benefit analysis that you should go through prior to making either a standard part of your construction contract.

Pluses and Minuses of Going to Court

If a dispute is brought in court, there is a standard, fully vetted set of statutes, case law, court rules, and procedures already in place.  A judge, unlike the typical arbitration panel, is generally more willing to consider defenses based on statue, such as the statute of limitations or the statute of repose.  Summary Judgment, in which a judge will (on occasion) grant a judgment for or against  a party without the necessity of the full blown jury trial, is possible.  Such dispositive, procedural rulings are extremely unlikely to be granted by an arbitration panel.

On the other hand, a court trial means a jury verdict.  Unless the parties agree to waive their right to a jury trial, your case will be decided by true laymen who may have never set foot on a construction site before, and who will not understand the RFI, change order, and pay app process.  Terms like “substantial completion,” “critical path,” and “standard of care” will be foreign to them.

I’ve seen some juries get it right, and I’ve seen some get it wrong.  Most jurors take their responsibilities extremely seriously and will try to apply the law as the judge instructs them.  But at the end of the day, you have people unfamiliar with industry standards determining your case.

Pluses and Minuses of Arbitration

Many standard construction contracts contain arbitration provisions, generally AAA Arbitration.  The typical arbitration includes a three member panel of experts (construction professionals, designers, construction attorneys) who hear the evidence and make a ruling.  That ruling has the full force of law.The reasoning behind such arbitration clauses is that industry professionals better understand the construction process, standards of care, and interrelationships on a complex construction project.  Theoretically, therefore, they are better able to determine the true root cause of damages or delay.

Arbitration is sometimes considered to be less expensive and less time consuming than a court trial.  The arbitration panel generally sets fairly loose procedural and evidentiary boundaries, and tends to allow into evidence things that might not meet the strict Rules of Evidence that a court would apply.  Some of these generalities, however, have not proven to be true in practice.  AAA Arbitration can be costly– the filing of a claim alone is costlier than typical court fees.  Case managers add a layer of bureaucracy to the process.   Arbitration panels also generally are more prone to “split the baby” in a close case.

Which is Better?

The answer to that question is a clear and concise, “it depends.”  It depends on the facts of your particular case, the jurisdiction you are in, the type of panel you may get, and numerous other things completely out of your control.  Consult with a lawyer in your jurisdiction to discuss the pros and cons of each, and which may be right for your particular situation.

Do you have experience with court or arbitration?  Personal preference?  I’d love to hear your thoughts on the subject in the comment section below.

UPDATE 10/13/2010:  The AAA responded to this article citing their internal studies showing arbitration panels do not often “split the baby”.  See more here


Photo “Courtroom One Gavel” by Joe Gratz via Flickr/Creative Commons license.

NC surety bonds- what they are; how they work (Guest Post)

checking the bondToday, another guest post– this time from Danielle Rodabaugh, a principal for Surety, an agency that issues surety bonds to individuals and businesses throughout the nation. She aims to clarify bonding rules & regulations, and has recently been focusing on construction/contract bonds. Danielle will be discussing bonding issues within the North Carolina construction industry.


Reliable professionals working in the construction industry want to guarantee the quality of their work to their clients, and that’s where surety bonds come in. In construction, contract (or construction) bonds are a type of surety bond utilized to ensure that professionals follow regulations and make appropriate decisions while working on a project. Construction bonds typically protect the client and work similarly to insurance—although they offer a different kind of protection.

What’s a surety bond?
In the construction industry a surety bond is essentially a legal agreement between three parties to help ensure the fulfillment of a contract:

  1. Obligee–typically the developer or worker who receives the protection of the bond, guaranteeing that the contractor fully completes the project
  2. Principal–the contractor who gets the bond, guaranteeing that they will fulfill various aspects of the project as outlined in the contract
  3. Surety–the agency who issues the bond to the principal, thus backing the contractor’s work and acting as an intermediary between the contractor and obligee

There are three main types of construction bonds that are utilized in North Carolina:

  • bid bonds
  • performance bonds
  • payment bonds

Each of these bonds plays a different role in guaranteeing the work of a contractor throughout a project’s duration. North Carolina surety bond agencies have the ability to issue construction bonds to qualifying professionals who want to take advantage of their benefits. Unfortunately, many working in the construction industry are still unaware of the legal financial protection offered by construction bonds.


Bid Bond Issues in North Carolina
Bid bonds guarantee a developer that—if selected—a contractor will agree to work on a project for the amount proposed in the original bid. This guards against contractors who might try to increase their bid on a project after being contracted by the developer. With a bid bond in place, the developer may collect appropriate reparation if the contractor breaks the bond’s terms. If such a situation arises, the resulting compensation is typically calculated by how much more the developer has to pay to contract the next-lowest bidder for the project. If the contractor does not have the ability to adequately compensate the developer the surety becomes responsible for paying reparation up to the bond’s full value.

Although North Carolina state law does not require the use of bid bonds on either private or public construction projects, a developer may still choose to require them as an added form of protection. According to N.C. Gen. Stat. s. 143-129, which outlines the procedure for letting of public contracts, North Carolina contractors must provide an upfront deposit in the amount of 5% of the total bid when submitting their bid. The language explains that a contractor may choose to provide a bid bond in lieu of making the required cash deposit. Bid bonds can be especially helpful for new contractors who may not have the necessary cash on hand for the collateral, as the surety would financially back the contractor’s bid.


Performance Bond Issues in North Carolina
Contractors secure performance bonds to guarantee that they will perform all aspects of a project as outlined in the contract. Should the contractor fail to complete the project satisfactorily, the performance bond allows the developer to regain appropriate compensation. If the contractor cannot pay the reparation then the performance bond instructs the surety to step in. Depending on the situation, the surety might be responsible for paying retribution up to the bond’s full face value for any extra fees incurred as a result of the contractor’s incomplete work.

Performance bonds are not required for private projects in North Carolina, however some regulations mandate their use for certain public ones. For example, the use of performance bonds is required when any government entity enters into a construction contract in an amount more than $100,000. Furthermore, they are also required for any other public construction project that exceeds $15,000, no matter the developer or specific contract. Additionally, any developer has the right to require a selected contractor to get a performance bond prior to a project, which especially benefits the developers of private projects or smaller projects that cost less than $15,000. All state-mandated performance bonds must be issued for 100% of the project’s contracted cost.


Payment Bond Issues in North Carolina
Payment bonds are put in place to make sure that contractors will pay all labor and material costs as outlined in the contract. Because mechanic’s liens—which ensure payment of outstanding debts upon sale of a property—can only be used on private property projects, payment bonds are essential to making sure that all bills are paid in full. Subcontractors (or other workers) can make a claim on the bond if a contractor does not make the appropriate payments, allowing them to recover deserved compensation.

Simply put, payment bonds are required on all projects that mandate the use of performance bonds. North Carolina General Statute 44A-27 explains that any professional working on a bonded project who is not paid for his labor within 90 days has the ability to make a claim on the bond. Private projects in North Carolina do not require the use of payment bonds, although these individuals may elect to use them at their own discretion. This goes to show that although bonds are not always be required in North Carolina, they are most certainly enforced. Oftentimes this means that individuals working within North Carolina’s construction industry must take the initiative to utilize construction bonds.


Danielle and I welcome your thoughts, comments, and questions about surety bonds in the comments section, below.


Photo “Checking the bond” by Stephen via Picasa/Creative Commons License.