Routt County wins Connell case about airport work

Litigation was related to plane parking project at Yampa Valley Regional Airport

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— A seven-member jury ruled in favor of Routt County and against all breach-of-contract claims made by paving contractor Connell Resources related to work at Yampa Valley Regional Airport in 2005 and 2006.

The jury’s ruling came Mon­day night, after eight hours of deliberation about litigation that began more than a year ago and culminated in a trial in Routt County District Court in the past two weeks. Routt County attorney John Merrill said the jury received 11 pages of “special verdict” instructions Monday with 31 questions related to breach-of-contract allegations, claims and possibilities for damages.

“They found for the county on each of the claims that was presented to them,” Merrill said.

County officials praised their legal staff and lawyers.

“All the credit goes to the hardworking lawyers we had that presented the case,” Commissioner Nancy Stahoviak said. “We are very pleased with the outcome.”

YVRA Manager Dave Rup­pel has said Connell’s contract work involved construction of three large-aircraft parking spots designed for Boeing 757s and additional parking areas for vehicles. The work was part of the $16 million second phase of the airport’s multiyear improvements.

Filed in late 2009 in Routt County District Court, Connell’s lawsuit claimed numerous breaches of contract by Routt County through its engineering firm. At the time, that firm was Carter & Burgess.

Connell’s contract was for $9.4 million, according to the lawsuit.

Attorneys for Connell did not seek specific monetary damages, but they alleged in their complaint that the county cost their client more than $1 million by reneging on the contract terms and withholding funds.

Merrill said Tuesday that he did not have an exact figure for the county’s legal costs.

“It’s a lot; $600,000 is going to be low,” Merrill said.

He said the litigation’s burden could be felt at YVRA, which as an enterprise fund in the Routt County budget is independent of the county’s general fund and operating dollars.

“Its impact is going to be on the airport capital improvement budget,” Merrill said about the legal costs.

He noted that the jury’s ruling might not signal an end to legal proceedings.

“We’ll probably try to get some of our costs back, and they’ll probably object to that,” Merrill said, referring to possible action by Connell. “A lot of other procedural things could happen.”

Comments

chickadee 4 years ago

Routt County has THREE attorneys (in-house), with salary and benefits provided by Routt County.

County Attorney John Merrill estimates that the legal fees the county incurred for outside counsel is greater than $600,000.00, and might approach $1,000,000.00. WHAT???

To say the least, the County must use outside counsel to do the heavy lifting when it comes to their legal work.

What exactly do these county attorneys DO who are on salary? I am betting that they take lunch breaks, go to a lot of "conferences" outside of the office, regularly eat cake at 3 p.m. (after all, every day is someone's birthday) and they probably do not often work past 5 p.m. or ever on weekends.

Taxpayer--ask yourself--are you getting your value for your tax dollar with these County Attorneys? Do you taxpayers have any question at all whether or not that 600K (or more) on outside counsel was reasonable and necessary?

And, we have a County Attorney WHO DOES NOT KNOW whether the county's legal bill for this case is 600K or whether it is 1 mil. Are you kidding me???

Where I come from, the difference between 600K and 1 Mil is bigger than a ball park. I would be furious if my attorney could not tell me--at least within a few hundred dollars--what are the total legal fees I have incurred on a case at any given time or stage of the case.

Oh, but wait....since I am a taxpayer, John Merrill is essentially under my employ. So I have reason to be riled. PRIVATE BUSINESS DOES NOT OPERATE THIS WAY.

People, we need to demand that the County spends OUR MONEY more efficiently. Even if the bulk of these fees the County ran up are paid by insurance (and WHY doesn’t this article tell us that?) that is one heck of a lot of legal fees for a County that has three full time salaried attorneys who work bankers hours. And eat cake. During "work" hours.

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Mike Lawrence 4 years ago

Chickadee, The sentence "the county's cost could approach that number," hinting at potential legal costs of $1 million, has been removed. It was an unfair leap on my part. John Merrill told me today, as he is quoted, that $600,000 is a low estimate. Any projection of a high estimate would be speculation. I apologize for any misconceptions. Contact me anytime if you'd like to talk more.

All the best,

Mike Lawrence Reporter, Steamboat Pilot & Today (970) 871-4233 mlawrence@steamboatpilot.com

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doug monger 4 years ago

Chickadee, Chickadee, A few relevant points for you, even though I'm sure that you are not interested in relevant points.
1) the cost could run from $600k to $1m is a broad guess, the county will be having bills coming in for the next month and will be reconciling the total costs for months to come .
2) None of the claim would have been covered by insurance, maybe that is what you bank on, but this was a breach of contract claim that would have come directly out of airport and county reserves, more specifically taxpayer money. As far as I know there is no insurance for a breach of contract claim. The county was protecting citizen interests as well as protecting the integrity of contract law. The contract was some 160+ pages.
3) As to use of outside attorneys, the county attorneys practice government law, they do not specialize in contract law nor do they specialize in trial law. The county went out and obtained attorneys that they felt could best represent the interests of the Routt County Citizens for this specific case. As a citizen I felt very well represented. One should not count on a building framer to do finish carpentry even though they both swing a hammer.
4) I guess the county could have just caved in on the case, even though the county felt it did what the prudent person would have done. I guess you suggest that we just cave and pay the $1.1million in breach of contract and damage claims even though the jury said they were not warranted.
5) Regarding the three attorneys, one works specifically on human service issues and the protection of our most valued constituents (at risk youth). The other two work diligently on protecting the interests of Routt County citizens. In my estimation, they annually double their salaries with savings on preventive measures and helping in legally sound contracts and the rest, as evidenced by the Connell Contract. By the way they do not have 3:00 cake.

I sat through two days of the trial, and I was very proud both as a County Commissioner as well as a taxpayer on how Routt County was legally represented in this case noting that the trial was just the summation of years of preparatory work. I also want to commend the system, I believe it still works, even though the costs of the system have run amuck, it basically has made the whole game a rich man's game.

We all need to remember that in this type of case, NOBODY WINS, and as the county we will try to move forward just as Connell will. We continue to live in a small community and everyone in this community will have to work digently to move collectively forward.

Doug Monger Routt County Commissioner

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chickadee 4 years ago

Thanks for your responses Doug and Mike.

Doug, your answer does not appear to be that of a sophisticated purchaser of legal services or informed public servant. You owe your constituents a better response.

First, you claim that the County attorneys "do not specialize in contract law nor do they specialize in trial law".

You state that the County attorneys, in your estimation "annually double their salaries with savings on preventive measures and helping in legally sound contracts (sic) and the rest".

Could you please give a better description of what are those "preventative measures"?

Could you please give more specific information as to the basis of your estimation that these attorneys "double their salaries" in savings". Are you SURE that you wish to allege that as fact? Really?

And will you please explain those attorneys are working on CONTRACTS even though you just stated that they do not specialize in contract law and implied that they do not know much about contract law?

Contract law is pretty basic. And Doug, seriously, are you asking your constituents to believe that any County Attorney worth his or her salt should not know how to try a case? Do you even realize how much trial work is involved in representing the Dept of Human Services? And that representing the Dept of Human Services IN COURT IN TRIAL is one of the duties of the County Attorneys?

Go over to the Dept of Human Services any afternoon. There is a darn good chance that there will be a cake or some other kind of food on the conference table.

Just be sure NOT to go looking for anyone at DHS or any County Attorney at "lunch time". You will not find anyone there.

I am not impressed. From an elected official and public servant, I expect a more informed response than the one you gave. And I am waiting for the back up on the estimation that those attorneys are doubling their salaries in savings. The County could save a heck of a lot of money by bidding that work out to professionals who actually know how to run a business and try a case. Doug, contract law is basic stuff. It is not unusual that commercial contracts amount to hundreds of pages. In the world of Big Law, first and second year associates take on that kind of work. I am ashamed that any county commissioner would sell the public this line of crap that the County achieved a good result in this case. You spent over a half million dollars of our money on legal fees! On what might have been a 500K claim.

Your outside lawyers should be able to tell you RIGHT NOW the total amount of attorney fees and costs the County has incurred to this date. They have new fangled billing programs and gadgets that do that.

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chickadee 4 years ago

Mike,

May I suggest that you edit the headline while you are at it?

Yes, a jury verdict was entered in favor of the County, but it is very misleading to the public to characterize this as a “win”.

A more appropriate headline would be "Routt County might have spent over 600K in legal fees but the County Attorney and the Commissioners have no idea exactly how much the County owes in costs and legal fees to date and the voters/ taxpayers have insufficient information to assess whether this case could have been settled years ago for less than that huge legal bill”.

The County must have an army of outside counsel working (or billing at hefty rates, rather) around the clock to generate 600K in billings for a breach of contact suit that has been pending since 09. Somebody better take a closer look at those bills and we should all expect a better explanation from the County Commissioners.

Routt County pays too many lawyers to eat lunch every day.

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chickadee 4 years ago

Doug, you only sat in on TWO days of a two week trial?

Still not impressed.

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trump_suit 4 years ago

So chicadee.

You would prefer that the county used less qualified legal representatives and lost instead?

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Queenie 4 years ago

chickadee: your ignorance is shining bright.

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Fred Duckels 4 years ago

I don't know the details on this case but it seems strange to me that this ended up with a jury trial. I would suspect that the weaker hand would find this beneficial. Carter Burgess, now Jacobs Engineering handled the project but are not mentioned here. I awould think that they should be in line to help share the grief. If Jacobs was lacking, they would be very adept at muddying the water, and the only winners will be the attorneys. I've been down this road and the whole thing gives me a hollow feeling.

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Scott Wedel 4 years ago

Sort of odd for a case to have the legal fees get so close to the amount in dispute.

I'd say that better lawyers on both sides would have laid out the expenses of proceeding and strongly encouraged a settlement.

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Fred Duckels 4 years ago

Scott, Not uncommon. At the outset attorneys always need all the facts and this leads to the outcome seen here. Been there, done that. If you are looking for justice my suggestion is to find a solution absent the courts. I have been sucked in, and pleaded with the other party for sanity, but this industry abounds with fools. I suspect this whole deal to be an exercise in futility.

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chickadee 4 years ago

If the County has such great lawyers why did they not put a mandatory mediation/ arbitration provision in the contract? If mediation would have been mandatory pursuant to the contract, this case might have been resolved for several thousand dollars by a judicial arbitration group.

Good work! Indeed!

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JLM 4 years ago

Not one to ever be reluctant to criticize the body politic, I must inject as a guy who has been involved in oodles of litigation that the County is clearly not at fault for having retained competent litigation counsel in the areas of contract law, construction law and litigation.

Staff attorneys in any administrative capacity are not expected to have the expertise to "try a case or two". Litigation is a full time endeavor and it takes years to master the subtleties of the Rules of Civil Procedure pertaining to litigation in State and Federal courts.

On the contrary, I would have been highly critical had the County not retained competent litigation counsel well versed and skilled in such matters.

Guess what --- litigation is expensive. Very expensive. And when you win, you typically have to pay your own legal expenses even though you have prevailed. This is why the country so desperately needs tort reform and a "loser pays" provision.

This is also why binding arbitration is an attractive alternative to litigation.

NOTE: I would be a bit surprised to learn that there was not some specific provision in the underlying construction contract pertaining to who pays in the event of a "dispute".

As to overall cost --- sure, the County should have had a constant and continuously updated "estimate" of the total cost of the litigation as that fact is a critical element in any litigation resolution, settlement or trial strategy. However, in the heat of the battle and getting ready for trial, sometimes the admin does not get done on time.

Last comment --- hey the County won, so their strategy while expensive was the winning strategy. Good for you, you County Joes.

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Fred Duckels 4 years ago

Chicky, The American Arbitration Association politics and gets written into contracts. I have found this to be a boon for lawyers but is usually not less expensive. The court system is free, but in arbitration the litigants pay for everything. I prefer not to sign a contract with the arbitration clause. The loser pays clause is not as iron clad as it seems, in the end someone flips a coin and that determines justice. Depending on the courts is the last way to settle problems, but it seems the first choice of those with inexperience or lack of wisdom. Wiser heads need to prevail way back up the line somewhere.

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sledneck 4 years ago

Ahh, the "justice system". A place where even when you win... you lose.

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