North Dakota Supreme Court denies construction company new trial over faulty structure

By Glenn Minnis | Mar 22, 2017

BISMARCK, N.D. (Legal Newsline) – The North Dakota Supreme Court has affirmed a lower court’s decision denying a local construction company a new trial after it was ordered to pay out nearly $900,000 for one of its structures found to be faulty.

Eagle Rigid Spans Inc. argued the interest, costs and disbursements it was ordered to pay Brandon and Constance Jalbert was off-base because the company was denied a fair trial, leading to the jury awarding the plaintiffs excessive damages.

In all, ERS was ordered to shell out $877,407.78. which also included a total cost and disbursements award of $125,045.48 that was later amended to $123,519.23.

The suit stemmed from ERS’ agreement to build a multi-purpose building for the Jalberts, who began complaining of faulty construction at some point during the process, leading to the filing a breach of contract and breach of warranty suit. 

ERS’ grounds for appeal also centered on its contention that the jury awarded excessive damages to the plaintiffs because of the influence of passion or prejudice. Company officials argued testimony that the couple paid roughly $600,000 to complete the building confused the jury about the $374,879 price-tag that was actually paid for the creation of the structure.

Attorneys for the company further argued the court abused its powers by scheduling the trial for only two days instead of three, which they contended resulted in the defendants not having as much time to present their case to the jury as the plaintiffs were allowed. 

The reduced trial time resulted in a scheduled visit to the site of the construction for jury members being canceled in the name of keeping the proceedings on their reduced time schedule.

In rendering its verdict, jurists on the high court noted "the court may impose reasonable restrictions upon the length of the trial or hearing and upon the number of witnesses allowed.” The court’s opinion was written by Justice Daniel J. Crothers.

The court also noted that attorneys for ERS did not object to the court’s scheduling timetable at the time when it was first announced and only began to express displeasure at a pre-trial conference not long before litigation was set to commence.

In the end, ERS attorneys argued the reduced trial time forced them into making several tactical decisions that they may not have made otherwise. 

In response, the court noted that the defense legal team never articulated what additional testimony it would have presented to the court if they were allowed more time, or even if they would have called additional witnesses to take the stand.

Further, the court rendered ERS did not make an offer of proof of the specific testimony excluded because of time constraints.

“Without a sufficient offer of proof this court is unable to review whether a failure to allow presentation of evidence was prejudicial,” the ruling stipulated.

The court also noted the trial court's decision to grant or deny a new trial for an excessive damage verdict is "discretionary" and will not be overturned unless an abuse of discretion has been demonstrated.

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