Fifteen years ago, Sarasota, Fla., custom builder Michael K. Walker was sued by a patron of a restaurant he had remodeled. (The patron had been drinking and fell down the restaurant's stairs.) After the case was resolved, the attorney representing Walker's liability insurance carrier approached him about serving as an expert witness on a construction-related case, and thus his sideline specialty was born. Walker has participated in about 12 cases since that first effort, using his expertise as a highly respected general contractor to provide case-specific information that a layperson can understand. “I tend to speak to what’s common practice in the industry,” he says. The work complements his full-time occupation: building very high-end, meticulously detailed custom homes by top architects from all over the country.
While he is reimbursed for the time and effort it takes to act as an expert witness, the extra money isn’t Walker’s main reason for getting involved. Rather, he wanted to see the world of construction litigation from the inside. “I got into it to figure out how not to be sued,” he says. “You get the benefit of seeing how the whole thing will play out if something goes wrong.” No matter how good a builder you are, he says, you still run a risk of getting sued at some point. He usually works on the builder’s side of a case, whether the builder is the defendant or the plaintiff. Many of his cases hinge on workmanship issues, while others entail a contractor who hasn’t been paid. Having grown up in the Sarasota area and worked there for 30 years, he generally doesn’t testify against other builders. “In a tight community, if you become an expert witness versus another contractor, you’ve somewhat tainted your own profession as a builder.”
The most important thing he’s learned is to always keep detailed records. “Records are golden,” he notes. “You have to have a system where, when a project is done, you can collate and track everything that happens.” As a result of his expert witness work, Walker has tightened up his own record-keeping and contracts considerably. He has a consulting company, Walker Consulting Group, to handle his expert witness cases separately from his building business, Michael K. Walker & Associates.
For builders thinking of getting into expert witness work, he advises them to start—like he did—by doing expert witness reports, and then later moving into expert witness testimony. He also cautions that they’ll need a thick skin to withstand cross-examinations. And his observation of construction litigation has taught him to be very selective about subcontractors. “Make sure of who you surround yourself with,” he says.
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