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  • Writer's pictureKathryn Bruns, CPA

A Loss turned into a Win

In the "Our Resume" section of our website, one item listed is "she has negotiated funds as plaintiff in lawsuit settlements". I would like to share one personal story about this, to demonstrate that you shouldn't always put everything completely in the hands of another person in protecting your assets; rather, you should PARTNER with them while ensuring you remain involved and contribute to the ultimate outcome. Why do I say this ? No one but YOU has your best interests SOLELY in mind at all times. At first, you and the other party you have hired may agree and be on the same page (because you are both trying to reach the same end goal); however, at some point your interests and their interests may go down different paths. It is at that point you will need to be prepared to step in and get the job done to meet YOUR goals, which at the end of the day, is all that matters when you hire someone to help you provide a service.

In August 2011, I had just moved into the new home I purchased. I had owned condos and townhouses before, but this was my first "real" house, and it included a finished basement. There were a lot of things in the basement that I was dealing with for the first time, the most formidable one being a dual sump pump and perimeter drain system. Then Hurricane Irene hit and with it came with about 17 inches of rain in one day (if I recall correctly). My house was on a street that was in a flood zone, but my house itself was NOT in the flood zone so I thought I'd be OK. However, the morning after the rain stopped, I noticed that the toilet in the basement started to overflow. At first, I wasn't too concerned and ran out to Home Depot to ensure I had some supplies to clean this up. However, within a few hours I realized I was dealing with something much worse than a toilet overflow. Water was gushing out and filling the basement, and eventually the water that was coming out contained "black water" sewage. When there was a few inches of the muck in the entire basement, the flow began to subside. At the end of the day, I was left with a toxic emergency that had to be dealt with immediately. The clean up and gutting process began over the next month, but it was a slow process due to all of the other issues other people had from the Hurricane in the surrounding area.

I began to investigate why this overflow happened in the first place since it just didn't seem normal. Some plumbing code research led me to the knowledge that below grade bathrooms should have devices on them that prevent these back flows. Noticing that the basement bathroom seemed a lot newer than the rest of the basement, I suspected that the people I bought the house from may have added this bathroom without permits and therefore not "to code". I contacted the owner prior to THEM, and my suspicions were correct in that the bathroom was added by the people I bought the house from. Since the people I bought the house from did not properly disclose the addition of the basement bath in the house sale documents, I suspected that they had it done illegally. I filed suit against them and it got ugly right away. There is no reason to get into all the details of the proceedings, but will just say that I was willing to incur fairly substantial legal fees to pursue the case. I never wanted to wonder "what if", and allow myself to walk away a victim of someone else's wrongdoing.

After two difficult years, it came time for serious settlement talks and I felt that I had a great case. We even had a non-binding arbitration, where an impartial lawyer acts like a judge and "decides" the case so that both sides get an idea of how a trial would likely get decided. I "won" and was "awarded" an amount of money that I felt would perfectly cover my legal fees as well as the rebuild my basement. I let my lawyer know that I would settle for the amount decided in the arbitration and nothing less. The people I was suing decided to only offer about a third of this amount. I let my lawyer know that I would not accept this because it would cover only the legal fees incurred to date. My lawyer encouraged me to take it, because he felt that there was no guarantee that if the case went to trial, I would win. He said I'd be kicking myself that I ended up with nothing, on top of the original basement damage AND legal fees. I let him know that I didn't start this whole thing only to end up with legal fees covered and still be in the same position as when I started (with a ruined basement caused by someone else's negligence). His reaction let me know that our interests were now different, and I would have to be my own advocate from this point forward.

Understandably, a lawyer would rather have a case settled than risk losing a case in trial. It's better for their record. Of course I, on the other hand, care more about a better settlement result than my lawyer's record. I began to understand that my unwillingness to settle for one-third of what I was looking for and believed I deserved, was frustrating him. I had to not care about that and take action based on what I thought was best, not based on what he SAYS is best (because our goals were now different). I let him know that as much as I understand his point of view, I will NOT be settling for much less than the arbitration amount. I made it clear to ALL parties (my lawyer included) that I will happily to go to trial if needed, that I believe in my case that much. Although I admit I was a nervous wreck waiting for the response, I won! I was offered an amount very close to the arbitration award and I walked away feeling on top of the world. Four months later, I had a finished basement that was more beautiful than it was when I bought the house 3 years earlier. What started out as a tough loss and became a very difficult three years, ended with a fabulous result. But I had to work for it.

Please don't forget to advocate for yourself as needed, you will ALWAYS be the one that has your best interests at heart at all times. Even if you are dealing with decent, kind people, they have their OWN interests to think about as well, and they may not always align with yours. If you ever want to talk through any issue that is impacting or can potentially impact your income, asset, or quality of life, please give us a call.

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