Guest columnist: Should I sue my contractor?

The SWLA Law Center receives calls almost daily about contractor disputes involving hurricane repairs.  The typical scenario goes something like this:

Caller: “I gave my contractor $50,000 (or some other large number) to make repairs to my house, and now I can’t get him to return my calls.”

Law Center: “Has the contractor done any work at all?”

Caller: “Yes, some, but it was not what I wanted and it wasn’t even done well, and now I can’t get him to finish.”

Law Center: “Do you have a signed contract?”

Caller: “Uhhhh…no.”

Law Center: “Where is the contractor from?”

Caller: “I don’t know. His card says he’s from Texas.”

Law Center: “How did you decide to choose this contractor?”

Caller: “He came up to me and offered what I thought was a fair deal. I was panicked and needed my house fixed. So, I hired him.”

Law Center: “Have you tried the DA’s contractor fraud program?”

Caller: “Yes. They looked at it, but they said it was not criminal and that I would have to hire a lawyer.”

Law Center: “Have you tried to hire a lawyer?”

Caller: “I have called six different law firms. None of them are interested.”

Pro tip: When a lawyer is not interested in taking a case, chances are it’s because there is no opportunity for the lawyer to make money. There is an old saying that a good case is a three-legged stool of liability, damages and a deep pocket. All three legs must exist or the case is not viable.

The above phone caller seems to have liability – breach of contract. The caller may have damages – the money he or she claims to have lost. Is there a deep pocket? Well, there is no written contract, there is no local presence, and there is no local business reputation. Chances are the contractor is not solvent. No solvency means no ability to pay a judgment. No ability to pay a judgment means no lawyer will touch the case.

So here are a few suggestions that might help determine solvency: 1. Google the contractor and try to figure out if he holds himself out to the community as a legitimate business person; 2. Determine whether his business is timely registered with the secretary of state? 3. Is the business registered with the Better Business Bureau? 4. Is the contractor licensed with the State Licensing Board for Contractors? You are looking for anything to indicate whether the contractor is legit.

As with most things in life, hind sight reveals what the caller (and many people like him or her) should have done: 1. Pay no or little money up front; 2. Literally buy your own materials and then give them to the contractor; and 3. Have a written contract. It’s always better to hire local, reputable contractors. Of course, that’s hard to do when in a hurricane hits your community and you are desperate for repairs.

Look for the three-legged stool.

Mark M. Judson is executive director of the Southwest Louisiana Law Center, Inc. Contact him at 436-3308, or mjudson@swla-law-center.com.

 

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