Cautionary Tales – The Bullying Butler

These are true tales, often covering more than one subject, and will resonate with some people more than others. You may recognise elements that apply or have applied to your experiences.

I was engaged by a Southern Building Company to carry out the soft landscaping works at a new build school in a large town in Sussex. The works were to have been carried out during August and September (soil preparation, grass seeding and shrub planting in raised beds) with tree planting during December/January using bare root trees. The soil was to be spread by others (i.e. the Main Contractor), drawn from a ten metre high pile on site, which I presumed had been stripped and stacked prior to commencement of the building works.

However, construction delays were pushing the programme backwards, and I wrote to the Main Contractor expressing my concern that we were going to miss the season for sowing grass seed, stating that we may be obliged to supply and lay turf instead, which would involve extra expense.  I received no reply to this letter, but it was verbally acknowledged by the Site Agent as a possibility.

The main contract handover was the end of January, yet at the end of November, we had  not managed to even start on the landscaping programme. Finally, on the last Monday of November, the builder starting placing topsoil drawn from this very tall/large pile into the raised beds. The soil had a slightly ‘rotten’ smell similar to silage, where the grass had composted in the heap. This however, was not the main problem.

The builders spread the main areas, those to be seeded as lawns, with the soil at the same time as the heavens opened, and reduced the site to a quagmire. Using wheeled JCB’s and track laying dumper trucks, they succeeded in creating a sea of liquid mud, in some places more than a metre in depth. Any attempt to walk on the area would be risking life and limb!

However, the Main Contractor insisted that I carry on with the programme of works, without any additional cost for supplying and laying turf, as it was up to me to decide my answer to the problem. Just get on and get the job complete! Deadlines are deadlines.

I refused on the grounds that I could not and would not sow grass seed on to water filled areas, some inch deep puddles covering hundreds of square metres. Turfing was impossible, as the ground was completely unfit for any cultivation works, or even traversing with barrows using ground boards.

The Main Contractor then issued me with a Notice of Determination which is a legal document cancelling my contract, and included a letter stating that they were intending to sue me for non-compliance and Breach of Contract.

Having carried out some preparation works (minor) and purchased the trees and shrubs, I wanted payment. The stage was now set for a confrontation in Court, with me as the Plaintiff (as I had issued a claim before they did) leaving them to counter claim if they wished (which of course they did.)

Arriving at Court, the case was held under a Preliminary Session which involves the Judge sitting informally (no regalia) with both sides to hear the merits of Claim and Counter Claim.
The Main Contractor came with three solicitors (or at least, three people from their legal team including one Barrister) and the Contracts Director. I was representing myself with no other legal assistance. Their case was that I could not sue them as they had issued the Notice of Determination letter, because of my non-performance and breach of contract. Their counterclaim was to be assessed once the final figures were in regarding the losses they made from penalty clauses from their client, but it would be in the tens of thousands.

They maintained that my claim was not valid as there was no longer a contract, and they intended to sue me for loss of money to their company because of my non-performance, and asked for the case to be set aside. They, in turn, would subsequently be suing me for a large sum of money yet to be quantified.

The Judge was absolutely scathing! In a few short sentences, he made if perfectly clear that my case was sound, as they had no right to issue a Notice of Determination as they were prima facie in breach of contract by failing to give me timely access to site to carry out my contract. He said some words to the Main Contractor that I shall remember for as long as I live – “It ill lies in the mouth of the Defendant to sully the good name of a professional contractor when the fault if clearly all yours!”

He went on to state that nobody should engage the professional services of an expert and then totally ignore that professionalism. If you employ experts, you must either take their advice or ignore it as you please, but you can never over ride it without recompense.  On the basis of Quantum Muriat (payment must be made for what it is worth) he found in my favour without hesitation, ordering the Main Contractor to make immediate payment of my claim, dismissing their counterclaim and awarding costs to myself (and presumably, they would have had to pay their legal team)

Obviously, every case will be different, but in essence, a professional  person/company
must be paid for the work he/she has done. If you engage professional advisers, you must pay for that advice/service/expertise.