Insurer’s Attempt to Strike Experts in Collapse Case Fails

Tred R. Eyerly | Insurance Law Hawaii

  The insurer’s efforts to exclude two of the insured’s experts in a collapse case were unsuccessful. Hudon Specialty Ins. Co. v. Talex Enterprises, LLC, 2019 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 150148 (S.D. Miss. Sept. 4, 2019).

    The insureds’ building collapsed. The remaining portions of the building required immediate stabilization. The insureds hired Mr. Laird, an engineer, to prevent further property destruction. The insured designated Mr. Laird as a non-retained expert for trial. Mr. Laird’s report claimed that the collapse was caused because the building had been re-roofed many times without removal of the degraded underlying roofing materials, thereby adding additional weight to the roof structure. 

    The insureds also designated Steve Cox as a non-retained expert. Mr. Cox was an architect who owned property neighboring the building that collapsed. He opined that the building collapsed because of the condition of very old mortar and not because of water standing on the building roof or because of roof repairs. 

    Hudson sought to strike these two experts because their opinions were inconsistent with the admitted facts. A document produced by the insureds stated that a large amount of rainwater had collected on the roof and the weight of the rainfall was the proximate cause of the collapse. Hudson claimed that this statement qualified as a judicial admission, removing the question of causation from contention. The court disagreed that the statement was a judicial admission because it did not form any part of the pleadings. The statement may have been an evidentiary admission that could be controverted or explained by the parties. 

    Hudson also argued that neither expert testified that the mortar decay which alleged caused the collapse was not plainly visible. Therefore, the testimony could not be relevant because the building decay had to hidden from view to trigger the policy. But the determination of whether the policy was triggered would be based on testimony and cross-examination.

    Hudson also sought to strike Mr. Laird because he had been retained to insist the insureds to preserve the property before suit was ever filed. The mere fact that he was retained to provide expert testimony did not make him a “specially employed expert” who was solely retained to provide testimony at trial and was not involved in other ways in the case. Mr. Laird would testify as to the opinion he formed during his employment by the insureds as he worked to stabilize the building. Therefore, he was correctly designated as a non-retained expert.

    Therefore, the expert opinions put forth by the insureds satisfied the Daubert standard and were both relevant and reliable. 

Contractor Learns You Need an Expert to Join “Battle of the Experts”

Matthew DeVries | Best Practices Construction Law

It kind of goes without saying, but you should probably bring your expert to a dispute if there is going to be a battle of the experts. One contractor recently learned this lesson to the tune of $65,000.

In Appeal of BES Construction, LLC, ASBCA 60608 (Oct. 23, 2019), the contracting officer awarded the contractor approximately $135,000 in delay damages for a 172 days in compensable delays on a renovation project on a base in South Carolina.  The contractor appealed the decision, seeking approximately $609,000 in delay damages. On appeal, the government presented expert testimony establishing that the contractor was only entitled to 25 days of delay damages or approximately $69,000.  Inexplicably, the contractor did not present any expert testimony and relied solely on the opinion of the owner of the company.

Rejecting the contractor’s claim on appeal, the Board reasoned:

[T]o prevail on its claims for additional costs allegedly incurred because of the late completion of a fixed-price government construction contract, the contractor must show that the government’s actions affected activities on the critical path, and where the delays of the government and the contractor are concurrent, the contractor must establish its delay apart from that attributable to the government. BES points to no such critical path analysis of its own, even though it concedes that “[t]he project encountered delays that are arguably attributable to both BES and the government”. And although BES relies heavily on the contracting officer’s decision to justify an award, our review is de novo, and the contracting officer’s award is not a floor, because once an action is brought following a contracting officer’s decision, the parties start before the Board with a clean slate. Nevertheless, we view the opinion of the government’s expert as a concession by the government that BES is owed $69,483.88 in delay costs.

Ultimately, the Board viewed this case as involving “particular and perhaps unusual circumstances” and credited the expert testimony of the government’s witness–the only scheduling expert witness in the case..

So what? This case presents two good lessons for contractors.  First, if you find that the contracting officer’s decision appears to be well reasoned, you should carefully review every detail of your claim before pursuing an appeal. Remember, in these circumstances the appeal is de novo, which means it is a clean slate on the proof. Second, and more importantly, if you are going to pursue a claim involving delay damages, the burden will ultimately be in your hands to show how the delays affected the critical path, that the delays were not concurrent with contractor-related delays, and that you have an expert to support your claims.  In other words, don’t show up to a battle of the experts without an expert.

Guessing as to your Construction Damages is not the Best Approach

David Adelstein | Florida Construction Legal Updates | August 24, 2019

Arbitrarily guessing as to your construction damages is NOT the best approach.  Sure, experts can be costly.  No doubt about it.  Having an expert versus guessing as to your construction damages caused by another party’s breach of contract is a no brainer.  Engage an expert or, at a minimum, be in a position to competently testify as to your damages caused by another party’s breach of contract.  Otherwise, the guessing is not going to get you very far as a concrete subcontractor found out in Patrick Concrete Constructors, Inc. v. Layne Christensen Co., 2018 WL 6528485 (W.D. New York 2018) where the subcontractor could not competently support its delay-related damages or change orders and, equally important, could not support that the damages were proximately caused by the general contractor’s breach of the subcontract.

In this case, the concrete subcontractor entered into a subcontract to perform concrete work for a public project. The project was delayed and the general contractor was required to pay liquidated damages to the owner.  Not surprisingly, the subcontractor disputed liability for delays and sued the general contractor for all of its delay-related damages “in the form of labor and materials escalation, loss of productivity, procurement and impact costs, field and home office overhead, idle equipment, inability to take on other work, lost profits, and interest.”  Patrick Concrete Constructors, 2018 WL at *1.

The general contractor moved for summary judgment as to the plaintiff’s delay-related damages – the subcontractor’s damages were nothing but guesses and the subcontractor could not prove the general contractor was the cause of the subcontractor’s damages.

The portion of the deposition transcript of the subcontractor’s president that may have also been its corporate representative as to damages is telling:

Q: After today’s exercise, do you believe you’re entitled to [$]681,740 under those items [regarding change orders]?

A: No.

Q: What amount [are] you entitled to?

A: I don’t know. I’d have to work it up.

Q: So as of right now, with my one chance to depose you, the person on damages, you can’t give me a figure that you’re actually entitled to?

A: No. We just ripped all these figures apart, so now I got to go back and refigure.

With regard to the amount of damages sought for “extra costs,” Bell [the President of subcontractor] testified as follows:

Q: Okay. Then you have – you total everything here, total of everything except for the Amount Due on Contract and Outstanding Change Order heading. So that [$]915[,000] basically added up everything under Extra Costs Not Submitted all the way down to Extra Equipment?

A: Yes.

Q: You’re asking for [$]915[,000] in this. Do you believe that’s actually what you’re entitled to today?

A: Well, like I said, we were – like you said, we have to do some adjustments here.

Q: Okay. Adjustments downward, correct, sir?

A: Yes.

Q: Can you tell me today what you think you’re actually entitled to?

A: No.

And, there was more.  The subcontractor could not locate its original estimate for the job, which is important for any loss of productivity or inefficiency claim – or any claim dealing with added labor and equipment usage. The subcontractor could not identify payroll records, time cards, vendor invoices, or anything to justify the damages it sought.  The subcontractor guessed as to labor hours without the back-up substantiating the labor hours and, equally important, could not establish it incurred the guesstimated labor hours caused by the general contractor.

In essence, Plaintiff [subcontractor] concedes that it cannot provide the Court with an “intelligent estimate without speculation or conjecture,” for either category of damages. Because Plaintiff has failed to make a factual showing sufficient to establish that the “extra costs” and “change orders” damages are capable of being proved with reasonable certainty, summary judgment dismissing these claims is appropriate.

***

Here, Plaintiff asserts that Defendant [general contractor] breached the Subcontract by delaying the Project, and that Defendant’s delay caused it to sustain damages. However, Plaintiff has admitted that Defendant was not responsible for all of the delay, and that Plaintiff and its reinforcing bar subcontractor contributed to the delay as well. Because, by Plaintiff’s own admission, it contributed to the damage-causing delays, it is required to allocate the amount of delay and resultant damages between, at a minimum, itself and Defendant.

Patrick Concrete Constructors, 2018 WL at *4.

Admissibility of Expert Opinions in Insurance Bad Faith Trials

David McLain | Colorado Construction Litigation| October 8, 2019

In 2010, Hansen Construction was sued for construction defects and was defended by three separate insurance carriers pursuant to various primary CGL insurance policies.[i]  One of Hansen’s primary carriers, Maxum Indemnity Company, issued two primary policies, one from 2006-2007 and one from 2007-2008.  Everest National Insurance Company issued a single excess liability policy for the 2007-2008 policy year, and which was to drop down and provide additional coverage should the 2007-2008 Maxum policy become exhausted.  In November 2010, Maxum denied coverage under its 2007-2008 primarily policy but agreed to defend under the 2006-2007 primarily policy.  When Maxum denied coverage under its 2007-2008 primary policy, Everest National Insurance denied under its excess liability policy. 

In 2016, pursuant to a settlement agreement between Hansen Construction and Maxum, Maxum retroactively reallocated funds it owed to Hansen Construction from the 2006-2007 Maxum primary policy to the 2007-2008 Maxum primary policy, which became exhausted by the payment.  Thereafter, Hansen Construction demanded coverage from Everest National, which continued to deny the claim.  Hansen Construction then sued Everest National for, among other things, bad faith breach of contract.

In the bad faith action, both parties retained experts to testify at trial regarding insurance industry standards of care and whether Everest National’s conduct in handling Hansen Construction’s claim was reasonable.  Both parties sought to strike the other’s expert testimony as improper and inadmissible under Federal Rule of Evidence 702.
In striking both sides’ expert opinions, the U.S. District Court Judge Christine Arguello set forth the standards for the admissibility of expert opinions in Federal Court:

Under Daubert, the trial court acts as a “gatekeeper” by reviewing a proffered expert opinion for relevance pursuant to Federal Rule of Evidence 401, and reliability pursuant to Federal Rule of Evidence 702.[ii]  The proponent of the expert must demonstrate by a preponderance of the evidence that the expert’s testimony and opinion are admissible.[iii]  This Court has discretion to evaluate whether an expert is helpful, qualified, and reliable under Rule 702.[iv]

Federal Rule of Evidence 702 governs the admissibility of expert testimony. Rule 702 provides that a witness who is qualified as an expert by “knowledge, skill, experience, training, or education” may testify if:
(a) the expert’s scientific, technical, or other specialized knowledge will help the trier of fact to understand the evidence or to determine a fact in issue;

(b) the testimony is based on sufficient facts or data;

(c) the testimony is the product of reliable principles and methods; and

(d) the expert has reliably applied the principles and methods to the facts of the case.
Fed. R. Evid. 702.

In deciding whether expert testimony is admissible, the Court must make multiple determinations. First, it must first determine whether the expert is qualified “by knowledge, skill, experience, training, or education” to render an opinion.[v]  Second, if the expert is sufficiently qualified, the Court must determine whether the proposed testimony is sufficiently “relevant to the task at hand,” such that it “logically advances a material aspect of the case.”[vi]  “Doubts about whether an expert’s testimony will be useful should generally be resolved in favor of admissibility unless there are strong factors such as time or surprise favoring exclusions.”[vii]

Third, the Court examines whether the expert’s opinion “has ‘a reliable basis in the knowledge and experience of his [or her] discipline.’”[viii]  In determining reliability, a district court must decide “whether the reasoning or methodology underlying the testimony is scientifically valid.”[ix]  In making this determination, a court may consider: “(1) whether a theory has been or can be tested or falsified, (2) whether the theory or technique has been subject to peer review and publication, (3) whether there are known or potential rates of error with regard to specific techniques, and (4) whether the theory or approach has general acceptance.”[x]

The Supreme Court has made clear that this list is neither definitive nor exhaustive.[xi]  In short, “[p]roposed testimony must be supported by appropriate validation—i.e., ‘good grounds,’ based on what is known.”[xii]

The requirement that testimony must be reliable does not mean that the party offering such testimony must prove “that the expert is indisputably correct.”[xiii]  Rather, the party need only prove that “the method employed by the expert in reaching the conclusion is scientifically sound and that the opinion is based on facts which sufficiently satisfy Rule 702’s reliability requirements.”[xiv]  Guided by these principles, this Court has “broad discretion” to evaluate whether an expert is helpful, qualified, and reliable under the “flexible” standard of Fed. R. Evid. 702.[xv]

With respect to helpfulness of expert opinions, Judge Arguello explained:

Federal Rule of Evidence 704 allows an expert witness to testify about an ultimate question of fact.[xvi]  To be admissible, however, an expert’s testimony must be helpful to the trier of fact.[xvii]  To ensure testimony is helpful, “[a]n expert may not state legal conclusions drawn by applying the law to the facts, but an expert may refer to the law in expressing his or her opinion.”[xviii]

“The line between a permissible opinion on an ultimate issue and an impermissible legal conclusion is not always easy to discern.”[xix]  Permissible testimony provides the jury with the “tools to evaluate an expert’s ultimate conclusion and focuses on questions of fact that are amenable to the scientific, technical, or other specialized knowledge within the expert’s field.”[xx]

However, “an expert may not simply tell the jury what result it should reach….”[xxi]  Further, “expert testimony is not admissible to inform the trier of fact as to the law that it will be instructed to apply to the facts in deciding the case.”[xxii]  Similarly, contract interpretation is not a proper subject for expert testimony.[xxiii]

Finding that all three of the experts intended to offer opinions that were objectionable on the basis of helpfulness, Judge Arguello granted both parties’ motions to exclude the expert testimony of the opposing experts. 


[i] Hansen Construction, Inc. v. Everest National Insurance Company, 2019 WL 2602510 (D. Colo. June 25, 2019).

[ii]See Daubert v. Merrell Dow Pharm., Inc., 509 U.S. 579, 589–95 (1993); see also Goebel v. Denver & Rio Grande W. R.R. Co., 215 F.3d 1083, 1087 (10th Cir. 2000).

[iii]United States v. Nacchio, 555 F.3d 1234, 1241 (10th Cir. 2009); United States v. Crabbe, F. Supp. 2d 1217, 1220–21 (D. Colo. 2008); Fed. R. Evid. 702 advisory comm. notes.

[iv]See Goebel, 214 F.3d at 1087; United States v. Velarde, 214 F.3d 1204, 1208–09 (10th Cir. 2000).

[v]Nacchio, 555 F.3d at 1241.

[vi]Norris v. Baxter Healthcare Corp., 397 F.3d 878, 884, 884 n.2 (10th Cir. 2005).

[vii]Robinson v. Mo. Pac. R.R. Co., 16 F.3d 1083, 1090 (10th Cir. 1994) (quotation omitted).

[viii]Norris, 397 F.3d at 884, 884 n.2 (quoting Daubert, 509 U.S. at 592).

[ix] Id. (quoting Daubert, 509 U.S. at 592–93).

[x]Norris, 397 F.3d at 884 (citing Daubert, 509 U.S. at 593–94).

[xi]Kumho Tire Co. v. Carmichael, 526 U.S. 137, 150 (1999).

[xii]Daubert, 509 U.S. at 590.

[xiii]Bitler v. A.O. Smith Corp., 400 F.3d 1227, 1233 (10th Cir. 2004) (quoting Mitchell v. Gencorp Inc., 165 F.3d 778, 781 (10th Cir. 1999)).

[xiv] Id.

[xv]Velarde, 214 F.3d at 1208–09; Daubert, 509 U.S. at 594.

[xvi] United States v. Richter, 796 F.3d 1173, 1195 (10th Cir. 2015).

[xvii] Fed. R. Evid. 702.

[xviii] Richter, 796 F.3d at 1195 (quoting United States v. Bedford, 536 F.3d 1148, 1158 (10th Cir. 2008)); see, e.g., Killion v. KeHE Distribs., LLC, 761 F.3d 574, 592 (6th Cir. 2014) (report by proffered “liability expert,” which read “as a legal brief” exceeded scope of an expert’s permission to “opine on and embrace factual issues, not legal ones.”).

[xix] Richter, 796 F.3d at 1195 (quoting United States v. McIver, 470 F.3d 550, 562 (4th Cir. 2006)).

[xx] Id. (citing United States v. Dazey, 403 F.3d 1147, 1171–72 (10th Cir. 2005) (“Even if [an expert’s] testimony arguably embraced the ultimate issue, such testimony is permissible as long as the expert’s testimony assists, rather than supplants, the jury’s judgment.”)).

[xxi] Id. at 1195–96 (quoting Dazey, 403 F.3d at 1171).

[xxii] 4 Jack B. Weinstein et al., Weinstein’s Federal Evidence § 702.03[3] (supp. 2019) (citing, e.g., Hygh v. Jacobs, 961 F.2d 359, 361–62 (2d Cir. 1992) (expert witnesses may not compete with the court in instructing the jury)).

[xxiii] Id. (citing, e.g., Breezy Point Coop. v. Cigna Prop. & Cas. Co., 868 F. Supp. 33, 35–36 (E.D.N.Y. 1994) (expert witness’s proposed testimony that failure to give timely notice of loss violated terms of insurance policy was inadmissible because it would improperly interpret terms of a contract)). 

Nevada Legislative Update: August 2019

Edward Garcia and Brittany Walker | Holland & Hart | August 30, 2019

CONSTRUCTION

AB 421 amends the laws governing residential construction defects. Key changes include extending the statute of repose from six to ten years and no longer requiring an expert to be present at an inspection concerning an alleged construction defect. Proponents of this legislation stated that it will protect Nevada’s homebuyers and encourage homebuilders to build to a higher standard. Opponents of this legislation stated that it will increase costs to new homebuyers and exacerbate the affordable housing issues facing Nevada.

AB 440 requires contractors who build new, single family residences to provide a disclosure of the purchaser’s rights and a one-year warranty from punch list completion that guarantees all home systems, workmanship, materials, plumbing, electrical and mechanical systems, appliances installed by the contractor, fixtures, equipment, and structural components.

SB 397 authorizes a licensed contractor to perform work in other license classifications which he or she does not have a license for when: (1) the value of the work is less than $1,000 and does not require a permit; and (2) the work is not of a type performed by a plumbing, electrical, refrigeration, or air-conditioning contractor. Essentially, this bill provides a handyman exception for contractors to perform work outside the scope of their license, which will help consumers by allowing a contractor to complete a small project which he or she does not typically perform.