One of the most common features in construction defect cases is the Case Management Order (“CMO”) or Pre-Trial Order (“PTO”) to govern pre-trial and mediation procedures. CMOs and PTOs arose in the days when the HOA would sue the developer, the developer would cross-complaint against the subcontractors, and each defendant and cross-defendant might have 2 or 3 insurance carriers defending, each of whom may retain their own panel counsel. In a large case there may have been 20 parties and 30 defense attorneys. In order to avoid the cost and chaos of all of those parties propounding their own discovery, and in order to prepare these cases for mediation well before trial and the associated costs, it became standard practice in California to include provisions in the CMO to stay all discovery until just before trial.
Plaintiff would provide a Defect List or Statement of Claims and the parties experts would meet and exchange information as part of the mediation process. All of the information exchanged would be subject to mediation privileges and inadmissible at trial. The benefit of this practice was that the parties (and carriers) would avoid the cost of formal discovery and allow the experts to discuss compromised scopes of repair to help settle the case while being able to take a more aggressive position at trial. The disadvantages are that each party uses its privileged initial expert reports to stake out negotiating positions more extreme than what they would put on at trial, with each side losing credibility with the other in assessing the value of the case, and for those cases that did not settle, the parties would be faced with having to do all of the depositions and discovery in the last 60 days, or delaying trial, or both.
Over the last 10 or 15 years with the advent of wrap-up insurance policies, these cases now usually involve 2 sides instead of 20; only the HOA and the developer remain in the case. However, old habits die hard, and the standard CMO/PTO hasn’t evolved with other aspects of these cases. The practice of staying all discovery and exchanging information only under mediation privileges remains, and as a result insurance carriers don’t receive the admissible evidence that they need to determine coverage and evaluate the real settlement value of the case until just before trial. On the plaintiff’s side, if most of the experts’ work is done under the guise of mediation privilege, those costs may not be recoverable. Outside the context of mediation, costs incurred in investigation of the defects and preparation of a scope and cost of repair are recoverable.
This reflexive claim of mediation privilege over all information exchanged during the case has outlived its usefulness. The CMO can and should remain to regulate formal discovery and to help the parties prepare for mediation, but regulated discovery should be opened early in the case. In California, the SB800 process already provides for the exchange of admissible information during the prelitigation right to repair process. Continuing that exchange during the early litigation allows the parties to continue to prepare for mediation, but waiving privileges had advantages for both sides.
A senior claims manager once commented that Plaintiff’s mediation-protected Statement of Claims “might as well be a stack of blank paper” for all of its usefulness to the carrier in assessing the value of the case. If the Plaintiff and it expects are free to inflate their claims early in the case without having to worry about every supporting those claims in front of a jury, they have little or no credibility. And if those claims are inflated or not “real,” not only can the carrier not properly assess the verdict range and settlement value of the case, but it may also be hampered in making a coverage determination. Simply put, if the exchange of real information through formal discovery is put off until just before trial, the defense cannot be ready to settle until then. Worse, the cost of defense goes through the roof in the last 60 days before trial as the lawyers’ scramble to take all of the depositions and to all of the other work that had been stayed for the previous year or two.
The Plaintiff is faced with the same question of credibility of defense experts where they are free to take a “low ball” negotiating position without having to support that position through cross-examination in front of the jury. Just as the carrier behind the defense attorney needs the Plaintiff’s “real” evidence to assess the claim, so does the HIOA Board of Directors behind the Plaintiff’s counsel. Additionally, in California as in most states, the cost of experts’ preparation for mediation may not be recoverable as costs or damages, but investigation of the defects and preparation of the scope and cost of repair is recoverable.
The biggest challenge is resolving construction defect claims for both sides is how to resolve these cases quickly while keeping costs under control. Practices that worked 20 years ago are no longer applicable with changes in insurance, and in light of some of the bad habits that arise when all of the information exchanged was confidential.
The CMO/PTO process can still be useful to regulate the discovery and mediation schedule given the volume of documents and other information to be exchanged but exchanging “real” information in a form that may come into evidence at trial should foster earlier resolution, resulting in cost savings for the parties. The CMO can provide for the parties to respond to controlled discovery, and the exchange of expert reports and potentially depositions can and should be done earlier in the case, well before the eve of trial. The parties can then assess the true value of each case and prepare for more substantive mediation without waiting until they are on the figurative courthouse steps.
Construction defect cases have a pattern, and it is tempting for busy lawyers to just put each case through the same algorithms that they have used for years. However, these cases have evolved and those of us handling these cases need to reevaluate our approach to these cases. Taking aggressive negotiating positions that no longer have any credibility with the other side has become counterproductive, and the exchange of real evidence earlier in the case would better serve our clients and carriers.
BERDING|WEIL is the largest and most experienced construction defect and common interest development law firm in California. For more information, please visit https://www.berding-weil.com