I was reading a recent article about a case filed in Georgia state court over a fire at a Red Roof Inn when I was reminded of an old adage about getting the little things right. John Wooden, the retired UCLA basketball coach, has perhaps one of the best versions of this concept: “It’s the little details that are vital. Little things make big things happen.”
Relative to the Red Roof Inn fire, an insurer paid over $1 million in damages to the owner of the hotel due to fire damage allegedly caused by a faulty bathroom vent fan. The news reports and the Complaint itself reveal several interesting, unstated parts of the story, though. Each of these has a lesson in them for contractors to consider.
First, the failure of a single bathroom vent fan caused over a million dollars in damage. The scale is astonishing when you think about the size of one of these fans and the fact that it’s such a small part of the construction of the hotel. The message here is: stay sharp, don’t cut corners, and get the entire job done right. It only takes a small mistake to cause a big problem.
Second, the case is framed up as a product liability case as opposed to a negligence action. The difference legally is that a product liability action, if the product is proven defective, results in strict liability regardless of causation for all intents and purposes. Negligence cases require proof that the negligent act caused the claimed damage. Either way, keep in mind that a contract claim is not the only way for a plaintiff to bring suit against a construction company (manufacturer or contractor) – especially if you are putting equipment or a product into the stream of commerce that can later be put forward as being defective.
Third and last, the contractor was not included in the suit. This may be because it was the hotel’s maintenance man who installed the fan, and the insurer can’t sue them because they paid the claim. The more likely reason is that the contractor that installed the vent fan followed the installation instructions given by the manufacturer and that the plaintiff inspected other vent fan installations in the hotel only to find that out. Because following design specifications and manufacturer’s directions is generally a complete defense, the installation contractor was not included in the case. The lesson here is to follow the design provided to you as a contractor and avoid value engineering. Once the contractor strays from the original design – approved or not – it buys liability for any failure.
I have always worked from the premise that anything worth doing is worth doing right. While this does not require perfection in every instance, it does require that some scaled level of attention must be paid to the details. Absent that, a little thing like a vent fan can lead to a bigger problem like a million-dollar lawsuit.
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Josh Quinter is a commercial litigation attorney, with a focus on construction law, and an Associate Managing Principal. Mr. Quinter actively works with his clients in the areas of business planning, contract negotiation and project consulting, risk management and dispute resolution, and litigation. His client service and professionalism have earned him the distinction of being named a Pennsylvania Super Lawyer, a Lawyer on the Fast Track, and a Rising Star.
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