Assess Whether Your Witness Is Able to Counterpunch

Dr. Ken Broda-Bahm | Holland & Hart

Attorneys know the feeling: With some of your witnesses, you just want to keep it simple, encourage them to keep their heads down, and limit the possible damage. With any luck, they’ll get through it with minimal damage to your case. But for other witnesses, testimony is an opportunity. The right witness, and the prepared witness, will be able to say things that advance your case and make it harder for the other side to win. Preparing the right kind of witness is a chance to inflict some damage on the other side.

But how do you know when the witness you have is capable of safely leaving the world of “Yes or no,” and able to enter the world of the artful parry? If you fill the wrong vessel with too much confidence, they could end up missing the meaning of opposing counsel, they could say things that you don’t want in evidence, or they could take it too far by being too clever and too argumentative with the lawyer on the other side. The bottom line is, you need to consciously assess to see what your witness is capable of. If they’re fuzzy or fragile, then you probably want to keep their answers to a minimum. But if they’re tough and smart, then you want to teach them sensitive and smart ways to punch back on your adversary’s questions. It all starts with assessing the witness.

Assess Occupation and Mental Habits

When advising on jury selection, I always feel that if you know what someone does every day, five days a week, you’ve got a good start on knowing them. The same goes for witnesses. If someone works in a repetitive context where they aren’t called upon to exercise judgment very often, it will be hard for them to rise to the challenge of powerful testimony. But if someone works in a context where they’re expected to be analytical, sensitive, and professional, it will be less of a challenge. There are exceptions of course, in both categories, but I’ve found that executives, managers, doctors, and academics will, more often than not, have the native skills to be more thoughtful, assertive, and empowered in the ways they answer opposing counsel’s questions.

Assess Attitude

In addition to their capability and experience, it is also essential to assess their attitudes. Are they comfortable that they understand enough about the opposing counsel’s tactics and objectives, and about their own testimony, that they can feel comfortable pushing back against that adversary’s language and assumptions? Even if they could, they may not want to. Of course, part of the attorney’s role as a counsellor is to get them to the point that they will do as well as they can. But the legal process can be stressful, and if you add in the force of accusation for a defendant, the psychological barriers can be too high. Alternately, if you have someone who is a little too eager to mix it up with counsel, then they could easily come off as argumentative or evasive when they’re really trying to be assertive. Ultimately, you’re looking for a witness who can be savvy, but also patient and calmly persistent.

Test

Ultimately, the only way to be sure that a witness can effectively testify in a way that moves from ‘not hurting’ to ‘helping’ your case is to see them do it. Hold several practice sessions where you don’t just talk about testifying, but you actually practice it. Play the role of the lawyer on the other side, using as much as you know about their substance and their style, and see how your witness handles it. For very important testimony, I have found that three meetings is often the right number: the first to assess the witness and teach sensitivity in responding, the second to practice it and really nail it down, and the third to see if it sticks after they leave and come back.

Many attorneys will say that giving testimony is largely an act of defense: like being on the receiving side in a volleyball game, you can’t score, but you can prevent them from scoring. That is a largely accurate and useful sentiment. Still, when your witness has the ability, attitude, and training, they could use some assertiveness in both preventing those scores, and maybe scoring a point or two back. It all starts with assessing the witness.

Sanctions Award Against Pro Se Plaintiff Upheld

Tred R. Eyerly | Insurance Law Hawaii

    The plaintiff’s failure to timely name an expert witness in his bad faith action led to sanctions being awarded against him in favor of the insurer. Black v. Fireman’s Fund Ins. Co., 2020 Cal. App. Unpub. LEXIS 2477 (Cal. Ct. App. April 23, 2020).

    After Black’s claim was denied by Fireman’s Fund, he communicated with company through letters, emails and phone conversations. Black complained that Fireman’s Fund handled his claim improperly, engaged in illegal activities and had ties to the Nazi regime in Germany. Fireman’s Fund sued Black alleging that his communications amounted to civil extortion, interference with contractual relations, interference with prospective economic advantage, and unfair business practices. Fireman’s Fund eventually dismissed its complaint without prejudice. 

    Black, however, had filed a cross-complaint in which he asserted a number of claims, including bad faith. Black designated attorney Randy Hess as an expert on insurance claims. Over the next year and a half, Fireman’s Fund repeatedly attempted to take Hess’s deposition. In March 2018, Fireman’s Fund moved to compel the deposition or exclude the testimony. The court set a July 20, 2018 deadline for the disposition to take place or else the testimony would be excluded. 

    In mid-July 2018, a new law firm entered its appearance for Black, and asked to postpone Hess’s deposition to July 20. Fireman’s Fund agreed. Then the firm asked for a 45-day extension for Black to locate and designate a new expert to replace Hess. Fireman’s Fund declined. Black moved ex parte to extend the expert discovery period. The court denied the motion. 

    Black filed another motion, seeking “a short continuance to allow a further expert designation and expert deposition.” Fireman’s Fund opposed the motion and sought $7,862.50 in sanctions. The court denied the motion, finding that Black was given 18 months’ notice of Hess’s reluctance or refusal to act as an expert. The court also awarded sanctions. 

    The Court of Appeals affirmed. In April 2017, early in the discovery period, Hess told Black that he would not act as an expert or appear at a deposition unless he was paid. A year later, Hess told Black he had withdrawn as an expert because he had not been paid. 

    Between April 2017 and July 2018, Black could have reached an agreement with Hess or found another expert. He failed to do either, forcing Fireman’s Fund to spend additional time and money to pursue and protect its discovery interests. Sanctions were warranted because in his motion, Black did not identify an additional expert witness, making the motion little more than another effort to delay the proceeding.

Recent Court Order Excluding Expert Testimony Offers Useful Reminders and Lessons for Construction Litigants

Amandeep S. Kahlon | Bradley Arant Boult Cummings

Construction claims often feature supporting testimony from design and/or scheduling experts, and exclusion of that testimony either by disqualification of the expert or a finding that the testimony is otherwise inadmissible can prove fatal to your claim or defense. States may vary in their requirements for admissibility of expert evidence, but most states follow some variant of Federal Rule of Evidence 702. Rule 702 provides that an expert may testify in the form of an opinion or otherwise 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.

The recent district court order in American Contractors Indemnity Co. v. Reflectech, Inc. granting a motion to strike an expert demonstrates the importance of satisfying the requirements for admission of expert evidence under Rule 702 and other like statutes. In that case, a surety sought indemnity for payment on bonds issued to a subcontractor that defaulted on a roofing subcontract. The surety investigated the general contractor’s claim for default against the subcontractor, settled with the general contractor for approximately $400,000, and then filed suit against the subcontractor for breach of their general indemnity agreement.

The defendant subcontractor proffered an expert to opine on the adequacy of the surety’s investigation and the appropriateness of payment of the general contractor’s bond claims. In moving to strike this expert, the surety argued (1) the expert should be disqualified due to lack of experience, and (2) the expert testimony was inadmissible because it was not based on sufficient facts or data as required under Rule 702(b). The court focused on the second prong of the surety’s argument in granting the motion to strike.  The court found that the expert’s opinion was not based on sufficient facts or data because of several admissions from the expert during his deposition. Specifically, the surety persuaded the court with the following facts derived from the expert’s deposition testimony:

  • The expert admitted he never visited the project site and interviewed only one individual, the owner of the subcontractor, before drafting his expert report;
  • The expert admitted he never reviewed the surety’s records regarding the general contractor’s claim and did not know what information the surety’s investigation uncovered because that information was never provided to him;
  • The expert testified that the surety’s records would have been helpful in forming his expert opinion (the subcontractor was unable to provide any explanation for failure to provide this material to the expert when it had been produced by the surety); and
  • The expert stated that he did not review the settlement portion of the general indemnity agreement, which he had opined was unconscionable.

The facts relied upon by the court highlight the importance of selecting and managing experts in construction disputes. When selecting an expert, a party should be mindful of the expert’s prior testifying experience and his or her approach to investigating a claim or subject area for which an opinion is required. A party should also ensure its expert receives and reviews all the documents and information necessary to formulate his or her opinion. To be successful, this process requires an active dialogue with the expert throughout the course of a matter.  For example, document productions from other parties and deposition testimony from witnesses will uncover additional information an expert may need to support his or her opinions. Consistent engagement with an expert will help avoid outcomes such as that encountered by the roofing subcontractor in this case and should help a party better develop its claims or defenses as a matter proceeds.

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.