Archives – May, 2017

Construction Expert for Complex Litigation

By: Derek Graham, an ALM listing expert.

Finding the right construction expert for defect and workmanship claims expert is a slippery slope for attorneys whose specialty is not construction. A typical strategy to find a construction expert is to retain an engineer or architect expert, since like attorneys, they are degreed and licensed. I believe that, for some, there is a tacit notion that having a degree makes one a more qualified witness. This boot-strap stereotype does a disservice by significantly narrowing the field of candidates, and disqualifying some of the best resources.

The other reason attorneys default to architects is because architects routinely inspect tradesmen work quality for approval or rejection as a daily part of their office. So as it should be, per the AIA contract family. Thus, it is understandable for an attorney to seek an architect to render an opinion on defective workmanship. A tradesman would be at least equally as capable as the architect. Indeed, just as architects provide expert opinions on defective work, so can many tradesmen testify on the nature of architectural errors and omissions that contribute to a given defect, as good or better as any architect.

“The knee-jerk selection of an architect as a construction expert is misguided. It is a vestige of the old stereotype that architects are more educated and sophisticated than builders.

Yet even within firms that specialize in construction litigation, many attorneys don’t have the precise knowledge required to understand the complex science of defects at higher levels of luxury, such as custom high-end residential construction. The same can be said of mediators and arbitrators who may be unfamiliar with ultra-high-end work. This latter condition can be problematic, as it may preclude the reliability of the construction expert. The subjective nature and lack of consensus about what constitutes high quality further compounds the problem. It is therefore necessary to establish the value of a construction dollar on each distinct project.

The Almighty Construction Dollar

Every project has a design intent and vision built into the design documentation that is meant to set the bar for quality. The level of quality is what determines the value of a construction dollar on a project. Quality levels can sometimes be ascertained directly from the price per square foot for different types of construction. For high-end construction, the range is wide. It is not enough to say “I want the best,” or “I want the highest quality,” because no two architects will measure quality in the same way.

An architect less experienced in high-end is more likely to under-design for his clients than a seasoned high-end architect, simply because his concept of high-end is limited, and not sophisticated enough to make subtle adjustments depending on his clients’ design intent. This will become painfully evident after all of the costly infrastructure is installed, and when there is little or no time left in the schedule to make amends.

“In the 19th century United Kingdom, architects and builders were required to maintain budgets. They absorbed any overages.

Boutique” architects designing ultra-high-end projects end up all over the map in terms of the integrity of their designs and the cost to build their projects. The same is true of high-end contractors, who aspire to this most lucrative building sector. Such disparity lends itself to the wild fluctuations in practice that invariably lead to defect complaints.

Of course, it is the construction expert who will ultimately evaluate and assess workmanship defects. However, it is up to the attorney to choose the right expert for the case. In order to do this, an attorney should have at least a basic understanding of what makes high-end residential construction litigation so very different from all other construction litigation, such that he can make the most informed decision, and choose the right expert for his case.

Luxury: Custom or off the Rack

Custom high-end residential construction must be differentiated from luxury residential construction: whereas both niches are in the top price tier, luxury construction – in modern parlance, nowadays refers to redundant Modernist glass tower condominiums featuring fit-outs designed by boutique architects and interior designers. The units all receive the same interior treatments. Such standardization keeps these construction schedules moving forward and defects to a minimum. There is little time or interest in customizing luxury developer work, as customizations simply slow down the cycle.

As one would expect, defect claims are (nowadays) unusual in luxury residential development. Custom high-end residential construction also features accomplished designers and architects; however, these designers are tasked with creating a more or less unique design according to each of their clients ’budgets and vision. That may not sound like much, but it can be a long, drawn out, tedious process. The level of scrutiny is considerably higher in custom high-end residential construction than it is in developer work. Accordingly, an architect can cycle (design and build) several identical apartments in a fraction of the time it would take to design one or two customized units.

“design standardization in the high-end is more efficient, but NYC is still the most expensive place to build on the planet.

The timeline from design through build is considerably longer in custom high-end residential construction, than it is in the developer market, because custom work invariably requires an extended design and development window before construction drawings can be developed. Production and installation is also protracted.

“Building are going up at a feverish pace, yet any efficiencies have done little to reign in skyrocketing costs.

A developer I work with needs about sixteen-weeks to turn around a typical two-bedroom unit, in an eighteen-story condo. All the units have construction drawings, and preorder of standard materials. There is little or no design and development period. By comparison, a similar gut-renovation for a custom high-end renovation might have a twelve month design window, and twelve to eighteen month construction window.

Finally, there are no close working relationships to gum up the works between developer architects and condominium buyers, whereas building custom homes can best be described as a short, stormy, three-way marriage between the boutique architect, the well-heeled – and not atypical arrogant owners, and the contractor. Such projects are often fraught with indecision, lack of documentation, and persistent change orders. I believe that the more personal a construction contractual relationship becomes, the more the likelihood for conflict. This circumstance describes a majority of the cases I have been involved with.

Your construction expert

The trouble with finding experts offering opinions on high-end residential construction architectural workmanship defects is that projects with defect claims typically involve systemic defects across five or ten trades. Defects are abundantly evident in a job gone south across the entire project. Depending on the value of each component of the claim, you might seek an expert who specializes in the area where the most substantial claims lie, rather than try to find a construction expert for every condition.

Why are defects often systemic? Because it is typically the general contractor who is responsible for hiring craftsmen with the appropriate skill-level for a given project. The contractor determines what skill-level is appropriate, and builds the project based on that rubric. If it turns out that the general skill-level of the tradesmen he hires is below the architect and owners’ standards, it will be evident in most of the visible work – particularly, all the finish and cabinetry trades. It will also be evident behind the walls and ceilings.

Why would a contractor endeavor to build to a level below what would be acceptable to the owner? Sometimes, he does so inadvertently: he may be ignorant, incapable, or inexperienced in the level of workmanship and quality expected of him; he honestly believes he can deliver high-level work, and may even have a different conception of what it should look like, or he may simply be trying to maximize his profit by skimping on lower-paid, unskilled tradesmen. This latter circumstance is not inadvertent, and is considered to be unscrupulous business practice.

“Specialization is key, yet never assume you a licensed engineer automatically trumps a building industry expert. My argument is that the former lacks practical experience, and the latter theoretical experience.

All construction experts are not equal. Construction expert engineers tend to be specialized: if you want an opinion, for example, on a structural, electrical, or plumbing claim, you would seek an expert in his respective calling, who need not necessarily be an engineer. However; interior fit-out seldom requires an engineer’s opinion, nor does it merit one. Typically an expert in a trade such as woodworking, or ornamental iron, could assess architectural defects within their bailiwick, and they may appear to be the one in the best position to do so; however, that does not guarantee they will make a good witness.

A construction expert may have any specialty, or they may be trying to be the one-size-fits-all expert. I am dead-set against a construction expert offering opinions on matters for which he or she has little or no practical exposure or insight. Turning away work is an exception that few experts take, or can afford to take, and that is why there are so many experts practicing outside their element.

Do Architects Make Better Experts than Trade-Experts?

Many architects also provide construction expert witness services to support defect claims. Some are better at it than others. Their dalliance into the defect construction expert market is not welcome by those in the construction industry. Yet, few architects I have met have actually ‘worked the tools,’ a prerequisite to expertise in means-and-methods and critical insight to the comprehensive nature of a given defect. In other words, they may be able to identify the defect, but will be hard put to demonstrate cause, its impact, or the cost of remediation, due to limited technical prowess. For that reason, architects with little or no field experience bring less to the table than a seasoned trade expert.

My uncle was an FAIA. He rebuilt an 18th century farmhouse, turned wood, and was hands-on as they come. I’ve met very few besides him of that caliber.

For my money, trade experts typically have vastly more experience than architects in terms of number and diversity of projects. For example, within his own small firm, a project architect may have been involved with three of his own projects a year, for twenty-years, whereas an architectural millwork expert may have built fifteen of his own projects each year, for twenty-years.

The same is even true of assessing the value, integrity, of architectural drawings. The tradesman has the advantage again – in addition to his three-hundred built projects, he has estimated thousands of drawings, with hundreds of different architects, as opposed to the narrow exposure of an architect, who only sees the comparatively few jobs that he is commissioned. Thus, who would be in a better position to testify as to what is typical across the industry?

” a site superintendent can read drawings as well as an architect. The difference is – the former is a builder, the latter a facilitator.

In terms of technical insight: if for instance, a kitchen is to be designed, the architect will generally prepare basic elevations and details, which are relatively schematic, as compared to the copious shopdrawings a millworker’s draftsman will have to prepare based on the architect’s schematics. The notion being that the architect is not concerned with how the cabinets will be constructed: only that they look like his drawings. That being said, who is in a better position to opine on the nature of a structural defect?

Finally, when it comes to valuation of a claim, most architects will simply not be able to do the math. Although they are supposed to have a general knowledge – $/square-foot, depending on building type, of the construction dollar on their projects, they will be hard-put to give any detailed sort of breakdown, or even accurate unit-price, in the way that a seasoned construction estimator or general contractor might. When architects require cost control of their clients’ construction budgets, they are typically wholly reliant on their general contractor’s estimator to generate any sort of detailed budget, or value engineering options. After all, architects are not contractors.

On the other hand, well-educated architects may be more eloquent, and may convey a more compelling image to an arbitrator or jury, than humble tradesmen, who tend to be less educated. This is a quandary for attorneys: “do I use the well-spoken but less informed architect over the seasoned tradesman who has little testifying experience?”

Final Selection

Whether you plan to solicit a construction expert opinion from an architect, a tradesman, or both, use these Best Practices in selecting your high-end expert:

1. Educate yourself about the specific nature of the claim: this knowledge will help you in determining which construction expert you might seek.

2. Set up a game plan to determine which experts you will call to testify: architect, tradesman, other …

3. Interview at least three experts for each area of expertise you expect to provide testimony

a. Have they testified before?

b. Have they prepared construction expert witness reports?

c. Are they experienced in high-end construction?

d. Do they have experiences in similar cases?pert

4. Ask for statement of qualifications

5. Contract: no expert should be retained without a contract. Most experts have their own form.

Conclusion

Well-educated architects may be more eloquent, and may convey a more compelling image to an arbitrator or jury, than humble tradesmen, who tend to be less educated. This is a quandary for attorneys: “do I use the well-spoken but less informed architect over the seasoned tradesman who has little testifying experience?”

The answer is: it depends. The defect(s) may be a function of an architect’s errors and omissions, for which most architects are insured against. Perhaps he specified incompatible materials, or stressed material beyond their tolerance. In that circumstance, an architect may provide the best opinion., Alternatively, there may have been nothing wrong with the specification of the materials, and the defect may be wholly attributable to poor workmanship. To be sure, a peer tradesman is well positioned to give an opinion on the nature of the defect. However; any decent architect can also assess the same cosmetic defects.

At the end of the day, it is not the specific vocation of the expert, but the integrity of the construction expert witness and the experience and insight he has to offer that should inform your expert selection. There are some great expert architects and tradesmen in the industry who are well suited to certain types of claims. The trick is to find just the right one for your case.

Leave a Comment May 30, 2017

The Challenge of Presenting Treating Physicians

 

By: E. Drew Britcher and Armand Leone,  of the New Jersey Law Journal, an ALM publication.

Lawyers from both sides of the litigation aisle have long battled over the presentation of opinions by treating physicians, not only with each other but with the physicians themselves and with the strategic and practical considerations of producing them. This should not be a surprise to anyone who has tried more than a few cases, but jurors tend to be more suspicious of the opinions of doctors who have been retained for litigation purposes. This was effectively confirmed by the New Jersey Supreme Court in Stigliano v. Connaught Labs , 140 N.J. 305 (1995), when the court stated:

Without impugning the expert witnesses who may testify for either plaintiffs or defendants, the treating doctors may be the only medical witnesses who have not been retained in anticipation of trial. A jury could find the treating doctors’ testimony to be more impartial and credible than that of retained experts.

However, despite that credibility, the AMA’s position in section 9.07 of their Principles of Medical Ethics that physicians must reasonably cooperate with their patient’s litigation support, and the decision in Spaulding v. Hussain , 229 N.J. Super. 430, 440 (App. Div. 1988), noting that “unless otherwise agreed, a physician treating an accident victim ‘impliedly agrees to appear and testify on behalf of his patient on issues such as the nature, extent and causality of his patient’s injuries,” many doctors are less than cooperative in a patient’s litigation.

Following the Stigliano decision, where neither of the involved doctors had prepared any reports of their opinions, it became accepted that doctors could testify to any opinion on causation that they had arrived at, during the course of their medical treatment. Subsequently, the Rules of Court were amended to reflect a requirement that the identity of experts and treating physicians, who would testify at trial, and their reports, be produced in discovery. While this represented no change as to experts or treating physicians offering certain opinions arrived at for the purpose of the litigation, such as an opinion on permanency, to many, this is a departure from what the court said in Stigliano.

 

Enter the court’s decision in the matter of Delvecchio v. Township of Bridgewater , 224 N.J. 559 (2016), a LAD case where the testimony of a treating physician regarding a plaintiff’s disability was sought to be introduced. The court, citing to past precedent, cited with the Stigliano matter, stated:

The testimony of a treating physician is subject to an important limitation. Unless the treating physician is retained and designated as an expert witness, his or her testimony is limited to the diagnosis and treatment of the individual patient. Given that distinction, if a particular claim requires testimony beyond the plaintiff’s own diagnosis and treatment, the plaintiff may require the testimony of an expert, conforming to NJRE 702 and 703.

Delvecchio, 224 N.J.at 579.

This requirement places the attorney that is seeking that doctor’s testimony at conflict with the doctor, who takes the position that they did not bargain for being involved and inconvenienced by the plaintiff’s litigation or who demands an outrageous fee for meeting their ethical obligations to their patient. Plaintiff’s counsel sought to have the court conclude that the report required by the combination of Rules 4:17-4(a), (e) and 4:10-2(d)(1) is only an obligation that exists if one is prepared—a contention the court specifically rejected. “Under the court rules, a party seeking to present physician testimony at trial must disclose the substance of the witness’s anticipated testimony, and the basis for that testimony, if requested to do that in discovery.”

So, what is a lawyer supposed to do when a doctor refuses to prepare a report? On the plaintiff’s side, one alternative is to have all the plaintiff’s medical records reviewed by a separate physician and have that doctor examine the patient and testify to the whole of the opinions needed about care, treatment, causation, disability and permanency. This would lose the innate credibility that a truly coincidental treating physician’s would potentially hold. So, the alternative is that an attorney should contact the physician and his/her staff and arrange to speak to the physician at a time convenient to the doctor and determine what opinions are not reflected by the doctor’s records and prepare a summary of the treating physician’s anticipated testimony. Should the doctor remain recalcitrant to writing a report or agreeing to an interview, one can always serve the doctor with a subpoena for a deposition. While this may not enamor one to the doctor, it will often get their attention sufficiently to get them to agree to one or the other. Not only is this something that practitioners have done in such situations before Delvecchio, the use of a summary of opinions is an authorized approach in our Rules regarding criminal procedures, as well as being what the court suggested that the Civil Practice Committee consider as an amendment to the rules at issue.

Let this not suggest that this is only the plaintiff’s counsel’s headache. The decision would seem to place a similar onus on defense counsel who might want to elicit testimony from treating physicians that is damaging to the plaintiff, akin to what the defense obtained in Stigliano. So how do they comply? The answer lies in the use of the interview process under Stempler v. Speidell , 100 N.J. 368 (1985). The defense attorney should send the plaintiff’s counsel an authorization to be signed by their client permitting an interview of the treating physician, arrange for the same, and then likewise prepare and serve a summary of the physician’s anticipated testimony. The failure to do so would seem to place defendants in a similar position of possibly being barred from calling the treater.

This approach by each side should not only satisfy the adversary and the court, it should let the practitioner sleep more soundly at night.•

 

Britcher and Leone and are founding partners of Britcher Leone LLC (www.medmalnj.com) based in Glen Rock.

Leave a Comment May 12, 2017

Elite Plaintiffs Lawyer Accused of Concealing Payments to Expert Witnesses

Originally published on Law.com, an ALM Media publication, on May 5, 2017.

By: Amanda Bronstad

Johnson & Johnson, hoping to reverse a $502 million verdict, is accusing plaintiffs attorney W. Mark Lanier of lying to a federal judge and jury about payments he made to two expert witnesses in a pivotal hip implant trial last year in Dallas.

The allegations against the Houston lawyer surfaced in documents unsealed this week by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit, which is hearing Johnson & Johnson subsidiary DePuy Orthopaedics Inc.’s appeal of the verdict. In an April 18 appeal brief, Johnson & Johnson lawyers Paul Clement and John Beisner said a “strange thing happened” when they started deposing the experts for a subsequent trial: The plaintiffs turned over checks written out to the experts, both of whom Lanier had insisted were not compensated for their testimony.

“Plaintiffs’ concealment of the fact that two critical expert witnesses had been paid or expected to be paid—at the same time their volunteer status was trumpeted to the jury and used to evade the expert-report requirement—deprived defendants of their ability to fully and fairly defend themselves,” they wrote.

The revelations, the lawyers argue, warrant a new trial and could undermine “the reliability of the entire bellwether process.”

Clement, a former U.S. solicitor general, is a highly regarded appellate lawyer and partner at Kirkland & Ellis in Washington, D.C; Beisner, who heads the mass torts, insurance and consumer litigation group at Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom in New York, is national litigation counsel to Johnson & Johnson.

They claim Lanier donated $10,000 to one expert’s grade school, followed by a $35,000 check for his services. A second expert, they wrote, allegedly admitted that he had expected to be paid from the start; once the trial ended, Lanier cut him a check for $30,000.

In an email, Lanier called the allegations “laughable if it weren’t so sad.”

“Everything I SAID WAS 100% ACCURATE AND TRUTHFUL,” he wrote. “J&J paints a one-sided version, fails to tell the whole story, and leaves a false impression.”

Lanier added: “This brief is what the underlying case was full of: J&J intimidating and disparaging anyone who dares to stands in their way and seek to hold them accountable.”

Lanier’s response in the Fifth Circuit is due May 17.

“There was no agreement”

On Dec. 9, a district judge in Dallas rejected Johnson & Johnson’s motion for new trial based on the same allegations. In that order, which also was unsealed this week, U.S. District Judge Edward Kinkeade of the Northern District of Texas found no evidence of fraud.

“The evidence before the court tends to show that at the time of trial there was no agreement for compensation between plaintiffs’ counsel and the [experts],” the judge wrote. The defendants also ignored the fact that their own experts received “far larger payments” for their testimonies. “Defendants have not shown how evidence of plaintiffs’ experts receiving a fraction of the compensation of defendants’ experts would have produced a different result at trial.”

The $502 million verdict in March 2016 was followed by a $1.04 billion verdict on Dec. 1, 2016 in the second and third bellwether trials in multidistrict litigation over DePuy’s Pinnacle hip implants. (The $1 billion verdict was later cut to $540 million.) More than 9,000 lawsuits have been filed alleging the devices caused pain and subsequent removal surgeries. DePuy won the first verdict in 2014.

The Pinnacle is one of several mass torts that resulted in substantial verdicts against Johnson & Johnson in 2016.

The verdict challenged by Clement and Beisner awarded five plaintiffs and three of their spouses. The jury found DePuy had failed to warn that its hip implant was defectively designed and that Johnson & Johnson aided and abetted DePuy’s actions.

DePuy has filed two appeals of the judgment. One, backed by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce in an amicus brief, challenges the “inflammatory rhetoric” at trial and a host of other “legal flaws.” The other involves the expert payments.

In that appeal, Johnson & Johnson’s lawyers wrote that Lanier’s misrepresentations about both experts, Drs. Bernard Morrey and Matthew Morrey, put him at an unfair advantage at trial. The unpaid status of his experts, who are father and son, were a central theme at trial, often contrasted with the “bought testimony” of the defense witnesses, they wrote. By insisting they were unpaid, Lanier ensured that DePuy would not have an opportunity to review expert reports prior to trial, they wrote.

They also cite Lanier’s letters to both experts a month after trial in which he noted that their testimonies “made a real difference to the jury” and felt it was unfair that they hadn’t gotten paid. The letters accompanied the two checks. Both witnesses ended up being designated as paid experts in the third bellwether trial.

But Lanier wrote there was never any financial arrangement with the experts during the trial, and neither expected to get paid by plaintiffs’ attorneys, according to his response to DePuy’s original motion. Once the second trial ended, both got checks after Lanier had a “change of heart.”

“Only by creative interpretation, omission, and outright misrepresentation are defendants able to suggest an improper arrangement that never existed,” he wrote.

 

Amanda Bronstad covers mass torts and class actions for ALM. Contact her at abronstad@alm.com. On Twitter: @abronstadlaw

Leave a Comment May 5, 2017


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