For design professionals, finding the right insurance broker can present a challenge. You need someone with ample experience handling the professional liability needs of architects and engineers, and who offers a wealth of value-added services. Only if your broker has a comprehensive understanding of what you and your firm are all about can he or she be of real use to you. Lacking this knowledge can leave your firm vulnerable in a shifting insurance marketplace. A good specialist broker is committed to investing the necessary time and resources to your account. They find you the best coverage for the best price, and they save you the considerable time it would take for you to do so on your own.

What is professional liability insurance and why is it important?

A professional liability (errors and omissions) insurance policy provides coverage to defend and indemnify a professional firm against claims alleging negligent acts, errors, or omissions in the performance of professional services.

Any project can give rise to a claim. Even if your firm employs an excellent risk management strategy, it is vulnerable to being named in a lawsuit. The cost of that defense can mount fast, even if your firm wasn’t in the wrong. A professional liability policy covers the cost of defense.

In the event that your firm is found negligent, and that the firm’s negligence gave rise to the claim in question, your professional liability policy will cover your firm for the damages you’re

legally obligated to pay, up to the policy limit. (Note: In most cases, defense costs erode the policy limit. Having adequate limits to cover both defense and indemnity is important.)

Why do I need a specialist insurance broker? Shouldn’t I be able to purchase my professional liability policy directly from an insurance company?

For architects and engineers, maintaining an active and adequate professional liability insurance policy is very often a legal requirement. And while a basic professional liability policy is straightforward enough for anyone to acquire, the insurance needs of design professionals are more complex than that.

The insurance industry is full of companies who want your business, but no two professional liability insurance carriers are exactly alike. Among the major differences are:

  • the size of policy limits offered;
  • whether multiyear policies are available;
  • underwriting appetites for types of engineering services;
  • and claims service.

Some companies require a 10-year loss history from design professionals, while others only require a five-year loss run. A specialist broker knows what the markets are doing, who the underwriters are, and how to present your firm in the best possible light. He or she will have understand each insurance company’s application and is quick to assist you in providing requested information. The cost of your insurance depends on this knowledge and attention to detail used on your behalf.

Here it should be noted that insurance companies often reward longevity. If your firm has been insured by a single company for a number of years and doesn’t have an especially adverse claims history, it’s likely that your premiums have been fair and endorsements (e.g., per project limit increases) have been easy to come by when needed. This does not mean that your current insurance company should be the only one to see your renewal application, however. A specialist broker understands the importance of approaching multiple markets periodically, either to reassure you that your policy is in the right hands or to grant you the opportunity to trade up.

Whether the market in a given year is hard or soft, a skilled professional liability insurance broker’s experience will benefit your firm. You need competent advice from a broker with the right perspective, both on your industry and the needs of your firm, as well as on the insurance marketplace as a whole.

This has been an excerpt of the January 2017 issue of ProNetwork News. Download the full free PDF version of Benefit from Selecting the Right Professional Liability Broker here.

About the Author

Audrey Camp is the Web & Social Media Consultant for a/e ProNet. She spent six years with a/e ProNet member IOA Insurance Services in California as a licensed account manager, specializing in the professional liability needs of architects and engineers. Today, Audrey works as a freelance writer living in Oslo, Norway. Her work has appeared in several literary magazines, journals and anthologies, and she is a founding member of the Oslo Writers’ League (OWL). She has also written for English-language Norwegian news sites and magazines. Most recently, Audrey co-authored two books—Startup Guide Oslo (Oct 2016) and Startup Guide Vienna (March 2017)—for a Danish company called Startup Everywhere, a process that inspired her appreciation for social entrepreneurship and intrapreneurship. Audrey has managed the a/e ProNet website, blog, social media presence and other publications since 2011.

PNN_1604Design professionals are often asked by their clients to sign contracts that include comprehensive—sometimes unreasonable—insurance requirements and indemnification terms.  These are usually drafted with the goal of protecting owners, clients, contractors, or other project participants.  But how does this work when the required coverages aren’t found in the commercial insurance marketplace?

Certificates of insurance (COIs)—which are also often requested in those professional service contracts—provide summaries or verification of current coverage, including policy effective dates, insurers, and certain policy limits.  A certificate gives a snapshot to the requestor (usually known as the certificate holder) for informational purposes.   It’s important to understand that in no way does a certificate endorse, amend, alter, or extend coverage; nor does it act as a contract.  Certificates are often provided using a set of industry standard forms produced by ACORD (formally known as the Association for Cooperative Operations Research and Development), which indicate:

THIS CERTIFICATE IS ISSUED AS A MATTER OF INFORMATION ONLY AND CONFERS NO RIGHTS ON THE CERTIFICATE HOLDER. THIS CERTIFICATE DOES NOT AMEND, EXTEND OR ALTER THE COVERAGE REPORTED BY THE POLICIES DESCRIBED BELOW.

Issuers of COIs generally strive to accurately reflect the insurance policies that are in effect, but those who are relying on the forms need to keep in mind that it’s virtually impossible to summarize an insurance policy of over a hundred pages in a form that contains a few boxes.  Adding to this, those who are issuing insurance certificates often struggle as they try to confirm in a COI that specific and detailed contractual requirements are—or aren’t—being met.

One common challenge is meeting a request that an insurer provide notice of a policy’s cancellation to the insured’s clients.  To do so, the insurer would need to track all such requirements for all insureds for the duration of each contractual requirement—which may even be unspecified.  With this in mind, ACORD made changes in 2010 to clarify that insurers’ notification duties are as defined in the insurance policy, not in the professional services contract.

Generally, courts agree that a certificate of insurance is not a contract.  One fundamental reason is that no consideration—or payment—is given by the certificate holder to the issuer.  However, there is a duty to make accurate representations within the confines of the overall system.  To consider this, we’ll review a few recent cases interpreting the obligations for COIs and their issuers. Continue reading “Certificates of Insurance: Why You Can’t Always Have It Your Way”

PNN_1511In what attorney Brian Stewart calls a “disturbing trend,” more and more project owners design professionals to procure separate questionnaires from their insurance brokers. These “broker-verification questionnaires” are meant to re-state or re-affirm the limits, exclusions, etc. of the relevant insurance policies to the project.  If you’re an architect or engineer who has met push-back from your broker on this issue, our November 2015 issue of ProNetwork News explains why:

I:  The Problem with Broker Verifications

The use of broker-verification questionnaires has been a growing trend seen most commonly in the context of construction insurance… Historically, a broker has satisfied this requirement through the production of a certificate of insurance or, if necessary, a copy of the policies themselves which demonstrate that the insured had the applicable coverage.  However, a number of project owners have recently been refusing to accept certificates alone and are requiring brokers to complete a questionnaire and verification, with the understanding that a failure to complete the questionnaire will cost the broker’s client the job.

The increasingly frequent use of such broker-verification questionnaires raises a number of legal issues for the broker.  The first issue deals with the broker’s authority to interpret the underlying policy between the insurer and the insured and whether a broker has the authority to confirm in writing whether a specific policy meets the requirements, not of the contract between the Owner and the insured but rather the requirements contained in the broker-verification questionnaires.  The second legal issue deals with the effect of a conflict between the underlying policy and the language of the questionnaire.  Specifically, what is the legal consequence when a broker completes a questionnaire that potentially contains conflicting language from the actual policy?  Finally, this opinion will analyze what risks and liabilities a broker is exposed to when completing  a questionnaire that contains language that is in conflict with  or amends, modifies, expands, etc. the underlying policy.

II:  Principles of Contract

Insurance is a matter of contract governed by the rules of contract. Unlike the ordinary commercial contract where the parties seek to ensure a commercial advantage for themselves, an insurance contract seeks to obtain some measure of financial security and protection against calamity for the insured.

Being a voluntary contract, as long as the terms and conditions made therefor are not unreasonable or in violation of legal rules and requirements, the parties may make it on such terms, and incorporate such provisions and conditions as they would see fit to adopt.  The rights and obligations of parties to an insurance contract are determined by the language of the contact and the insurance policy is the law between the parties unless the contractual provisions are contrary to public opinion or law.

III:  Role of the Broker

An insurance broker provides a professional service for the insured, its client and goes to the insurance market to determine what policy or policies best fit the needs of its clients.

Relevant distinctions exist between an insurance agent and an insurance broker.  Whereas an agent generally represents a particular insurance company, an insurance broker generally represents only the insured. Consequently, an insurance broker owes a duty to the insured and not the insurer. Continue reading “The Down-Low on Broker-Verification Questionnaires”

PNN_1411Which is better, more or less documentation in your project file after the job is complete? Despite recent advances in technology, document retention has become a difficult, expensive and complex proposition. Computers have changed design professionals’ work flows and methods, greatly increasing efficiencies, but also exponentially multiplying the volume of data; e-mails, attachments, drawing revisions, text and voice messages, not to mention folks are still sending faxes and letters, actual paper ones. All of this adds up and can become an unmanageable mess, even for the best of us.

Making decisions now about which project documents to keep and which to discard is like trying to pick who will win the Super Bowl in the year 2024. You never know which ones will be the most important until you are right in the middle of a claim. Experience and common sense tell us that there are certain documents that, no matter what, are probably safe bets to come in handy down the road. You may also be required by law or contract to keep certain records for certain time frames.

This article will offer suggestions on those categories of critical project documents necessary to defend claims, and which ones are better off being discarded as a matter of course after project completion. The question ultimately is framed as “what to keep and for how long?” Of course, these are only suggestions, and you should discuss implementation of any document retention program with your chosen legal and accounting advisors in your specific jurisdiction. Further, this article only addresses retention of construction project documents and not corporate, HR or tax records.

“Age of Discovery”

Modern construction projects, with all this data, are subject to modern lawsuits. These lawsuits are conducted by increasingly younger, tech savvy and sophisticated lawyers who sometimes make the litigation more about the discovery effort than about the facts of the case. Parties are allowed to submit detailed and specific “requests for production of documents” once in the lawsuit, or issue subpoenas to non-parties. State and federal court discovery rules could require parties to turn over copies of all information they have in their possession related to the project. Continue reading “Document Retention: More Paper or Paper-Less?”

PNN_1503In the world of claims-related contract clauses for design professional agreements, the indemnity and defense clauses get all the attention.  However, lurking in the shadow of the indemnity clause is a menacing cousin with potentially even greater and more frequent impact and risk:  the prevailing party attorneys’ fee clause.  Both clauses share the common risk that they are often not covered by professional liability insurance because each represents a contractually-assumed liability which would not exist in the absence of the contract.

The indemnity clause draws the far greater attention because that obligation and exposure often arises during the claim by way of the defense obligation, as opposed to the attorneys’ fees clause which ultimately comes into play definitively only after a final judgment.  Moreover, many design professionals (and especially their CFOs) are attracted to the prevailing fees clause as a means of effectively collecting unpaid fees.  Without such a clause, they worry that the expense of pursuing collection of unpaid fees will eat up much of the ultimate recovery.  Accordingly, it has some initial positive appeal.

However, that appeal is limited in perspective and overlooks the far greater potential negative impact of the prevailing party attorneys’ fees clause in the context of a professional liability claim which is the all too common response to even justified actions to recover unpaid fees.  As opposed to the indemnity and defense obligation, the prevailing party attorneys’ fees clause will apply far more frequently.  The indemnity and defense clause applies only where the client itself is facing a third-party claim.  By contrast, the prevailing party attorneys’ fees clause will generally apply to every client dispute, regardless if third parties are involved.  Since the majority of claims against design professionals come from the project client, that makes it far more likely and relevant. Moreover, where professional liability issues are involved in the dispute, the presence of the clause may actually dilute the design professional’s fiscal advantage. Specifically, absent the perceived panacea of the prevailing party attorneys’ fees clause, design professionals frequently hold a superior financial advantage during claims by virtue of their insurance which will fund defense costs as compared to the client claimant which is often left to fund the costs of litigation from their own resources. The unfortunate reality is that pacified by the promise or potential to recover their attorneys’ fees at the end of the dispute, many client claimants and their attorneys incur far more than they would absent that prospective reimbursement—even to the point of incurring multiples in expense beyond the prospective recovery. Even if the claim is largely defeated or reduced, even a minimal net recovery may establish the client as the prevailing party entitled to recover the attorneys’ fees incurred in the action.

Whether expressly stated as such, or not, it is important to recognize that a prevailing party attorneys’ fees clause is almost always a two edged sword equally available to both parties. As a matter of consumer protection, nearly every state has statutes which refuse to recognize one-sided attorneys’ fees clauses and automatically convert the clause into a bilateral clause entitling and exposing each side to the benefits and burdens of the clause. (See for example Oregon Revised Statute 20.096 and Florida Statute Section 57.105(7).) Accordingly, a clause which purports to entitle the design professional to recovery of its attorneys’ fees in pursuit of its fees will most often to create and equivalent right of recovery in the client for contract related claim.

Whether proposed by the client or by the design professional, prevailing party attorneys’ fees clauses are a common component of many commercial contracts, including design professional service agreements. An unqualified prevailing party attorneys’ fees clause is almost never a good idea for a design professional. Where such a clause is proposed, the following five options present a descending structure of preferred approaches. In proposing or negotiating any of these five options, frequently the best rationale in support of these approaches is that any dispute should focus on resolution of the dispute and not arming the lawyers for battle.

This has been an excerpt of the March 2015 issue of ProNetwork News, titled Prevailing Party Perils: Attorney’s Fees’ Clauses in Professional Service Contracts. To continue reading about the five preferred approaches to dealing with an unqualified prevailing party attorneys’ fees clause, click here to download the full PDF version of our newsletter for free.

About the Author

David A. Ericksen is a principal shareholder in and immediate past President of the law firm of Severson & Werson in San Francisco, California, and leads the firm’s Construction and Environmental Practices. For over twenty years, Mr. Ericksen has specialized in the representation of architects, engineers, construction managers, design-builders, and other construction professionals. Mr. Ericksen’s expertise covers all aspects of such professional practice as lead litigation and trial counsel, as well as being an active resource for risk management, strategic planning, and transactional matters. He is a trusted and valued resource to design and construction professionals and their insurance carriers across the United States and beyond. He has been repeatedly recognized as an industry leader, including being named a Construction “SuperLawyer” for the last eight years. He is a graduate of Boalt Hall School of Law, University of California, Berkeley, a former law clerk to the Washington State Supreme Court, and a member of and resource to numerous construction and environmentally-related professional organizations. Mr. Ericksen is a frequent speaker before construction professional organizations such as the AIA, SEA, ACEC, CSI and others, as well as providing in-house training seminars for firms.

constclaim

Before a design professional decides whether or not to report a professional liability claim, or circumstance out of which a claim might arise, he or she must understand the definition of a claim, circumstance and what is required of them under their policy. The pros and cons of reporting or not reporting a claim are more fully explored in this Practice Notes.

Why Firms Neglect to Report Claims

From an insurance provider’s point of view, it seems that design firms faced with a claim (or a potential claim) too often come close to jeopardizing their professional liability insurance (PLI) coverage. Many firms resist calling their insurance provider to report the matter or ask for advice. Their reasons tend to fall within one of four categories:

Ignorance. They do not realize what their policy requires of them when they are presented with a claim or possible claim.

Fear. They fear the black mark on their claim history more than they fear the claimant.

Denial. They believe that ignoring the problem will produce the best result.

Resolve. They have read their policies, understand the risks, embraced that the issue exists andafter this careful analysis, choose not to report.

Know Your Terminology

Claims

It is critical that insurance policyholders understand their duties, responsibilities, and benefits under their PLI contract. One of the duties is to report all claims promptly.

What defines a claim? Most policies refer to it as a “demand for money or services.” So the telephone call from the angry client asking you to pay for damages they believe they have suffered as a result of your professional services would rise to the definition of “claim” under most policies.

Why is this definition important? Remember, you must report claims promptly. Failure to meet your obligations under the insurance policy may jeopardize your coverage.

Possible claims

It is important to know how your insurance policy defines a “claim” versus a “possible claim.” Possible claims typically do not rise to the definition of “claim” but could become one. Policies generally define possible claims as “a circumstance from which you reasonably expect that a claim could be made.”

Are you required to report these instances to your insurance company? Maybe. Most policies read, “if you report a circumstance,” but some state, “you must give written notice.” The circumstance provision in most policies goes on to say that if you follow the reporting requirements, “then any claim that may subsequently be made against you arising out of such circumstance shall be deemed to have been made on the date the insurance company received written notice of the circumstance.”

With some policy forms, firms have a fair amount of discretion on whether to report a “circumstance,” unlike the requirement that you promptly report all claims. Keep in mind that most PLI policies for design firms are claims-made, which means that insurance cove rage is not retroactive to an unreported occurrence. Continue reading “To Report or Not To Report? A Potential Claims Question…”

Blog Love: ArchNewsNow – Nuts & Bolts

nutes_and_boltsNuts+Bolts is a “an exclusive ArchNewsNow monthly series to provide A/E professionals with practical tips for a more successful, profitable practice.” All ten articles currently listed are worth a read, and we hope the series is slated to continue. The authors are architects, consultants, insurance professionals, and financial advisers, all of whom offer a timely perspective on the state of the design industry. After perusing the library, here are four posts with the potential to help you and your firm in a risk management capacity:

#1 Nuts + Bolts: Mission Possible: Increase Your Value Without Lowering Your Fees

In this economic climate – or even in a good market – it may be tempting to lower your fees to stay competitive. However, lowering your price is not something you should immediately consider when faced with reduced revenue. As an alternative, you should seek to inject as much value into your services as possible. This will allow you to increase the intrinsic worth of your services, encouraging your clients to pay an appropriate fee for quality, not just quantity. But if you’re convinced that lowering your fees is a solid strategy that will boost your bottom line, think again. Here are a few reasons not to.

#2 You Can’t SELL If You Can’t TELL

You went to architecture school to become a good communicator…right? I’ll take a risk and say that chances are you probably didn’t. But if you want to be a great architect, engineer – or any other kind of professional – you need to know how to communicate clearly and effectively. You simply can’t avoid it. You communicate every day, whether you are meeting with colleagues in your office, talking to a client on your cell phone, e-mailing a consultant, or tweeting your followers. While we live in the digital age, and communication may seem to flow easily, there’s a lot more room for error. We’ve all had that gut-wrenching feeling of hitting the “send” button on an e-mail that had the wrong content or went to the wrong person.

#6 Changing Habits: The Secret to Successful Time Management

No time to grow your business? Learn to set aside time, clearly identify goals, and change bad habits, and you’ll transform your business development efforts from a waste of time into a productive enterprise. Most budding architects are initially attracted to the design side, rather than the business side, of their profession. As a result, many architects never develop the skills necessary to build their businesses. But just as design and project management are part of your daily routine, you should set aside time for business development as well. How do you make time for business development when you’ve been avoiding it or aren’t sure how to fit it into your day-to-day practice? The trick is to fundamentally and permanently change your habits. This sounds daunting, but you can achieve it if you follow these practical steps.

#8 Best Friends Don’t Make the Best Partners

In popular culture (and at most architecture schools) the architect is often portrayed as a lone figure, from Howard Rourke in Ayn Rand’s seminal work, The Fountainhead, to Frank Lloyd Wright, to Frank Gehry. Most people perceive architects to be creators working alone in the dark. Contrary to popular belief, it takes more than a single artist to make a great building. Most architects know that. What’s less obvious is that, in reality, most successful architectural practices are not sole practitioners but partnerships.

About the Authors of the Nuts+Bolts Series:

Michael S. Bernard, AIA, Principal, Virtual Practice Consulting

Mary Breuer leads Breuer Consulting Group

Founder of integrated communications firm Hausman LLC, Tami Hausman

Donna L. Maltzan is a business development trainer, facilitator, consultant and coach

Michael M. Samuelian, AIA, AICP, vice president at Related Companies

Stanley Stark, FAIA, LEED AP, a New York City-based architect who has held senior leadership positions with major firms including HLW, HDR, and Francis Cauffman

Steve Whitehorn, managing principal of Whitehorn Financial Group, Inc., the creator of The A/E Empowerment Program®

PNN_1407The construction phase is a dynamic time of a project and a design professional’s involvement is significant from a risk management perspective since it allows the design professional the opportunity to provide input during the construction of the project.  Since no designs are perfect (and, moreover, are not expected to be perfect to still meet the standard of professional skill and care), all designs require some level of interpretation that is best done by the design professional who created them.  During construction, the design professional can visit the jobsite to determine if construction is proceeding in general accordance with the plans and specifications and clarify the design intent when necessary.  This article addresses issues design professionals should consider if they provide services during this phase.

Do you have the resources?

The firm must have sufficient staff to devote to this important phase of the project.  The services during this phase require experienced professionals who know how to handle themselves on the jobsite and how to successfully complete tasks in the office.  If junior professionals perform construction phase services, the firm must ensure senior professionals are available to (and actually do) mentor the junior staff.  A successful mentoring program requires regular and meaningful communication between junior and senior staff who need to be proactive to nurture the mentoring relationship.  Mentoring is a two-way street:  it will not be effective if busy senior professionals do not devote time to advance junior professionals’ development and junior staff must take the initiative to seek out senior staff for guidance.

What does your contract say?

Industry standard documents have relatively balanced language regarding the construction phase.  However, design professionals are often faced with a client-

proposed document that may not include appropriate language for the design professional’s involvement in the construction phase. Continue reading “Construction Phase Services: Considerations for a Successful Outcome”

PNN_201403_Waiver of Subrogation A Valid Defense for Architects and EngineersAn attorney is asked to defend an architect in a claim for defective design of a geothermal HVAC system, which allegedly caused an explosion and several million dollars of property damage to an owner’s manufacturing facility. He reviews the file, making notes. The plaintiff is the owner’s casualty insurer, which has paid the claim and sued the general contractor in subrogation. It’s actually the general contractor who has named the architect as a third-party defendant, seeking contribution and indemnity. All sorts of interesting defenses present themselves: statute of repose (work was completed years ago), no common law indemnity claim, no negligence…but what about the contracts for the original project?

Contained within the AIA A201 General Conditions is a boiler plate “waiver of subrogation” clause. It appears to bar subrogation claims for damages covered by insurance on the property. The owner’s carrier picked up the tab, so how can it sue in subrogation now? Are these waivers of subrogation provisions enforceable?

Since the project is in North Carolina, our inquiry starts with a 1987 North Carolina Court of Appeals decision, St. Paul Fire & Marine Insurance Company v. Freeman-White Associates, Inc. The case involves an architect who performed design services for a Charlotte, North Carolina hospital. During construction, a wing of the hospital collapsed, causing significant property damage. The hospital’s insurer paid the claim under an “all risk” policy and then sued the architect in subrogation. The agreements between the parties to the construction incorporated the AIA A201 General Conditions, including its standard waiver of subrogation clause, and the clause was applied by the trial court to dismiss the complaint against the architect under Rule 12(b)6. Unfortunately, on appeal, the court of appeals declined to enforce the waiver of subrogation provision and reversed the trial court’s dismissal.

The rationale? The appeals court held that because the contract required the architect to provide coverage for its own errors and omissions, the contract was susceptible to two interpretations: 1) the true intent of the contracting parties was that the owner would waive all claims for damages against which the owner had insured itself; or 2) the contracting parties intended for the architect to insure against its own negligence in order to negate the waiver as to losses caused by the architect’s negligence.

Not a great result for the client. However, St. Paul Fire & Marine Insurance Company v. Freeman-White Associates, Inc. is a 1987 decision. Surely there has been some better law made since then…

Waiver of Subrogation in General in Construction Contracts

“Subrogation is the substitution of [one person or entity] to the position of another, an obligee, whose claim he has satisfied…” Thus, in the insurance context, the doctrine of subrogation allows an insurer who has indemnifed its insured to step into the shoes of its insured and sue any at-fault party which may have caused the damages. The right of subrogation may arise by equitable, common law principles, or by virtue of any express assignment in the insuring agreement. The policies underlying subrogation are appealing: 1) it feels “fair” that the ultimate liability for a loss should land on the wrongdoer, not an insured’s insurer; 2) in theory, subrogation should keep insurance premiums down; and 3) parties remain incentivized to avoid mistakes. In addition, fault-based claims in the midst of construction can cause delays and increased hostility during the project. Costly litigation would ensue, the avoidance of which was one of the purposes for which the property insurance was originally obtained. Continue reading “Waiver of Subrogation: A Valid Defense for Architects and Engineers?”