What kind of lawyer do I need to look for?
May 23, 2013 12:32 PM   Subscribe

We have a construction company in the middle of a year-long process of building two new houses next to ours. For the last couple months they have been dropping garbage (nails, insulation, chunks of 2x4) on our house's walkways and roof — some of it dangerous (boards with nails through them, for instance, along the walkway on the side of the house). I'd like to try to get this to stop.

Along with dumping dangerous garbage on our house, they broke the gas mains to our place over the winter, and the worker who did the damage joked around about not smoking. They seem pretty comfortable with putting us in harm's way. I called the construction company's project manager who said he would talk to his subcontractors, and there have been no improvements. I called the city code compliance department (Seattle, WA) and they said this was a civil matter, not a safety issue, and that there was nothing they could do. I don't know exactly how to progress with this and am wondering what type of lawyer I would need to look into hiring, if I need to pursue legal remedy. You are not my lawyer, etc. but what kind of lawyer would I look for (particularly in Seattle or in Washington State)? Is this situation something a generic attorney could handle?
posted by Blazecock Pileon to Law & Government (13 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
Is this situation something a generic attorney could handle?

Yes. This is fairly typical work for a small, local general-practice firm. The first remedy would likely be a demand letter to the construction company, which is something any attorney should be able to handle. In your shoes I'd probably look for whatever's the most "townie" lawyer/law firm in the area—someone familiar with the local players, etc.
posted by cribcage at 12:42 PM on May 23, 2013 [1 favorite]

The problem with something like this is that it's hard to tell a construction crew "be more careful."

You're talking til you're blue in the face, and it's getting you nowhere.

As for breaking the gas main, you can ask to be compensated for your inconvenience, but other than that, chalk it up to "shit happens".

I'm not sure what kind of actual redress you have. It's annoying. Lots of things in life are annoying, but that doesn't make a lawsuit.

Code compliance can investigate noise, dumping, improperly stored...stuff, and if the contractor is found to be incompliant, they can fine him/her. But, beyond that, they're kind of toothless.

A generic lawyer might be able to throw the fear of God into them with his letterhead, but other than that, I doubt much will change.

Now, if they abandon something valuable on your property...then you have something to bargain with.

I'd find out who the owner of the house is, and copy them on any letter you might send. If that person is moving into the house, I'm pretty sure they won't want to start off life in their new place with a royally pissed off neighbor.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 12:46 PM on May 23, 2013

Response by poster: I'm not looking for advice to 'chill'. This is getting beyond 'annoyance' and into putting our health and safety at risk and further damaging our home. I'd like to ask to keep answers focused on legal redress, if possible.
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 1:04 PM on May 23, 2013

Call OSHA. Tell them that the job site is dangerous. Call your councilman or local pol.

OR sunbathe in the line of fire. First object that comes near you call the police and report a dangerous worksite.
posted by Gungho at 1:56 PM on May 23, 2013

Contact your local elected officials. This is the kind of constituent service they do. Contact the Seattle Building Department- construction crews should have appropriate facilities for waste materials, and they should not be encroaching on neighboring properties.

Find out who the developer is, rather than simply the construction company. The developer might be more sensitive to pissed off neighbors, especially if they have sought waivers of any sort for the construction.
posted by ambrosia at 2:05 PM on May 23, 2013

Two things: First, you say you called the construction company's project manager. You need to now follow up in writing. I agree with RB above, and include the owner, and with ambrosia to use the developer. I would CC your councilperson as well. You need to talk about the FACTS, and not your feelings (until the end). Boards with nails strewn onto your property are not okay, and they need to be informed that any damage will be prosecuted to the full extent of the law (or something).

Second, read your municipal code, and find out what if anything they are violating. Apparently, what you reported to Code Compliance sounded more like "I'm pissed with my neighbor's construction, it's annoying me and I think I might be in danger" and less like "Section 24-060 of the City Code prohibits noise of greater than 85 decibels before 7 am; for the third day in a row, the construction crew has started jackhammering at 5:30 am. Please rectify this." Do the research, and find out what they need to be doing.

Feel free to use a lawyer as described above to do either or both of these points. A construction lawyer would work, especially since they would probably know what the construction team is supposed to be doing, and what standards they supposed to follow.

Your main problem at this point is, from what you have described, is that there has been potential danger, but no damage yet. I honestly hope you are never damaged, and that this gets cleaned up as soon as possible.
posted by China Grover at 3:02 PM on May 23, 2013

What you're describing is egregious stuff that, in my opinion, goes way beyond the "chill" point and well into "take action" territory where having a good lawyer with relevant experience in litigation dealing with this sort of thing would be a very good idea, regardless of whether it ever actually becomes litigation. If you need a referral to a good lawyer in Seattle, drop me a MeFiMail and I can talk to a few people and get you some names of people who do that kind of work.
posted by The World Famous at 3:16 PM on May 23, 2013

Response by poster: Contact the Seattle Building Department

As mentioned, I talked with their code violation people and they state they cannot help with matters of public safety.
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 3:43 PM on May 23, 2013

IANAL, TINLA! But I asked my lawyer husband whose practice area touches on similar issues. He says that the kind of attorney you want is someone who deals with homeowner's insurance and contractors. You may be able to make a claim to your own insurance company - and possibly getting them involved puts real pressure on the contractors. Hopefully a nastygram would be enough. Hope that helps.
posted by stowaway at 6:54 PM on May 23, 2013

Your employer may have an employee assistance program that will provide you with a free 30 min consultation with a lawyer. You might want to think of starting there if you have access to such a program.
posted by grouse at 7:30 PM on May 23, 2013 [2 favorites]

Nthing local, townie lawyer at this point. I would certainly agree that you don't need to experience an actual injury or property damage before taking action.

The code guys are normally about making something safe once built, although I am surprised they said they were powerless in this matter. Regardless, the state does have construction site safety regulations (and they're more likely to follow up than OSHA, for a variety of reasons).

Now, breaking underground gas or other utility lines happens, to be sure, but it's also an indicator that somebody did not do their job. Normally something like this is going to shut the site down for at least a day or two while they allow the utility workers in to fix things, and state inspectors in (many?) cases. I'm surprised that there wasn't something like that here, for instance, to determine whether it was the gas company's construction, the utility flaggers, the maps, or actually something the diggers did. Now, if that happened, and the last case was not what the honchos said, you're not actually going to be able to add that to the list of grievances here. But I am shocked after such an incident that things didn't suddenly become super-scrupulous.

Look, building sites often have to comply with all sorts of rules, sometimes as "minor" as preventing mud runoff, and that can even mean daily inspections. I don't think you're at all out of line expecting that they'll do a better job of keeping crap off your property. But you have to go at it in the right way and make your voice heard where it matters. If that means calling the head office of the developer every time you see a nail, well, so be it. The grunts on the job site are only going to change their ways if they get the message from the people who are paying them.

So my approach at this point would probably be lawyer letter, just to let them know You. Are. Really. Serious.

But also, you need to start taking photographs, even videos, keeping a log, and making sure they know you're doing this and that what they are doing is unacceptable. Don't be afraid of being ruthless. After they're gone you're never going to see them again.
posted by dhartung at 1:29 AM on May 24, 2013 [1 favorite]

1. Negotiate with the contractors to be careful. Threaten to go over their head to the owner.

2. Document everything with photos and videos showing the date and time and then go to the owner, the neighborhood council and the local building authorities, in that order.

3. Get a carpenter to build a scaffolding on your side of the property line and hang a big sheet of canvas that will slide the trash back to the construction site.

4. Try to get your local crusading TV or newspaper reporter to do a "Shame on You" piece.

5. IAAL. Any litigator will know about the torts of "trespass" and "private nuisance." A lawyer's demand letter will not be too expensive. BUT suing will cost you far more than the cost of hiring a cleaning service to sweep up the debris on your side.
posted by KRS at 7:59 AM on May 24, 2013

There might be minor criminal activities taking place here. If they are dropping materials on your property, they are littering, or "scattering rubbish," as it is called in Pennsylvania. They might also be charged with creating hazardous conditions or reckless endangerment. Check you local laws, talk to the cops.
posted by tommyD at 10:06 AM on May 24, 2013

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