Avoiding Professional Negligence

Tip the scales of justice in your favor by following these simple guidelines

Being “served” a lawsuit alleging wrongdoing by a past client is probably a worst-nightmare scenario for practicing surveyors. The good news is that – statistically – the vast majority of professionals will never be sued. The bad news is that – whether you committed the alleged offenses – defending yourself and your business in civil court is a long, frustrating, and unsatisfying experience.

There is no insurance policy, contract clause, or holy prayer that can prevent a civil suit against you or your business. But there are many things that you as a manager, partner, or owner can do
to protect your practice from litigious individuals. As an added bonus, these items can improve your business in many ways, including increasing profits, raising employee happiness, and ensuring that you deliver the best work to your clients.

So, what are the downsides? Well, the tasks are going to require the company leadership to actually lead, for you to work ‘in’ the business and not just ‘on’ the business, and for the company to cull those employees who do not have the desire to grow as professionals.

The first barrier against civil liability is simply exceeding your client’s expectations. A study showed that the biggest indicator of whether a patient would bring suit against their doctor was whether they “liked” the doctor. My company created a brand promise for each of the three
divisions. We constantly compare the work done (e.g., a land survey or expert report) with that promise. If we fall below it, we contact the client, discuss where we think we could have done better, do not charge for the work, or something similar. If an employee fails to meet that brand promise, remedial action as simple as a chat or as harsh as firing. One of our mottos is “on time, every time, exactly as promised.” Does your firm share that ethos?

Another fantastic step to meet that ethos is creating a “University.” This university is not for customers, students, or anyone else. It has been created for the sole use of training your own employees. At the University, you will teach your field surveyors how to run a traverse, teach your CAD technician which line categories to use and teach your finance person how often to call or email about collections.

Many companies rely on senior personnel to teach their juniors. A good example would be a party chief teaching a rod man how to cut line. But do your party chiefs know exactly how you would do it? I don’t think so.

There are many methods for building your University but there should be a mix of videos, white papers, and step-by-step checklists. All of this combines within your operations manual. Your employees are on the frontlines every day, which makes them either your biggest asset or your biggest liability.

Client expectations may be set in many ways: in-person meetings, previous survey work done for them, emails, or phone calls. But the best way to set clear expectations is with a written contract. The contract is not meant to be used against each other. Instead, it’s meant to define the scope of work, time until completion, and compensation schedule.

I personally started my business with a one-page contract. Today, I use contracts up to 10 pages because I have learned many lessons. Contracts should be reviewed by an experienced attorney for legality and missing items. If you learn a lesson from a less-than-ideal client, use that experience to improve your contract. Many surveyors have told me that having a contract is not worth the time and expense. I disagree. Contracts protect both you and the client and will lead to more work, happier clients, and fewer disputes.

Every court of law or equity, no matter in what state, will judge a particular Professional Land Surveyor against the “reasonable  person” standard. Here, the court creates a fictional PLS that acts as “reasonably.” Then, if your conduct falls below that line, you as a PLS are considered negligent.

What exactly does this fictional person do? Well, that is where expert testimony comes into play. Testifying in dozens of depositions and trials over the years, I am shocked that so few surveyors maintain their equipment. I do not worship at the alter of the three-band GNSS unit or the robotic total station. I will only buy the equipment necessary to do the job efficiently and accurately.

On the other hand, if my Leica TS06 manual states that the total station should be serviced every 12 months, I will religiously follow that recommendation. Have you ever read your maintenance manual? How many years has it been since your firm has serviced the differential levels or total stations? Not following standard practices is the easiest way for an attorney to prove that you are negligent.

Building a business that works is a process that is never complete. It will require hard work, bring you to tears some days, but it will be worth it in the end. All of these recommendations may seem disconnected, but there is one thing that ties my recommendations together. Company values.

Company values are the soul of the company and explain why your firm makes all its choices. When NLC, my company, has a sticky problem, we review the issue through a prism of our company values. It is amazing how clear the answer becomes.

Recently, a client complained that his invoice was too high and he wanted a discount. One of our values is “Consistency, Dependability and Quality.” We explained that value and how we could not provide that to him without doing the work required before being deposed. He’s never complained again. If you do nothing else after reading this article, put those values in writing and talk with your team members about them. It’s worth it.

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