Disparate Dispute Resolution

We’ve been slammed this past month here at Atlas Geotechnical World Headquarters with two interesting and completely different dispute resolution projects.


The first, and more conventional, involves piledriving problems on a highway bridge project. (The photo on the left is not from this project.  These piles are in Diego Garcia. I just like pictures of pile cushions burning).  The highway job was big and the problem very well documented, and my involvement started with the customer DropBoxing me about a hundred PDA and CAPWAP reports.  Yes, I did in fact do a brief joyful dance when presented with all that gorgeous data.

One fascinating aspect was that the project changed delivery methods, from Design/Build, to Bid/Build, but the B/B contract retained the D/B design. Reviewing the data offered me an unusually clear view of how engineers, appropriately, alter their design approach depending on the level of involvement they expect to retain during construction.

The assignment was straightforward: read all the materials, do a bunch of analyses, and figure out why piledriving was so difficult.  It culminated in a report, which I was able to prepare on an accelerated but still manageable pace.


The second project could not feel more different.  It’s a rainstorm-induced slope failure that closed a road and damaged both public and private property. (And no, it’s not the landslide on the right.  That one is on Highway 1 and is a much bigger problem.) Mediation was not successful, and Superior Court rules move us rapidly to trial.  While I support prompt resolution of failure issues, the pace makes thoughtful analyses challenging because none of the experts have produced reports. All parties are learning about findings and conclusions through depositions, and the deposition process does not facilitate coherent narrative.  I’ve been attending the sessions that have geomechanical topics so that I can digest the verbal description of other expert’s assumptions, methods, and conclusions before immediately translating from jargon to legal so that my client can ask insightful questions. While the pace of the work is similar to the piledriving problem, producing expert advice without mulling over a written draft, even briefly, completely changes the feel of the work. A completely different skill set is needed, the ability to simplify and reduce, as opposed to the ability to carefully and thoroughly explain.

Interestingly, Atlas’s fees on the this landslide issue are roughly comparable to the fees on the piledriving matter, but the piledriving damages are more than two orders of magnitude higher. It seems like a direct comparison of efficiency: the piledriving issue has hugely more data that was neatly summarized in a group of generally similar reports. The slope failure project is dribbling out technical data in no particular order in the course of daylong question-and-answer sessions.

I think we should all be thankful that our society provides a formal and binding method of resolving disputes. Much like representative democracy itself, the process can seem inefficient and sometimes even unfair. But at least there’s a process with predictable rules, and the inefficiencies seem on the whole acceptable given the alternatives. Offering deposition testimony without having already formulated, refined, and produced a report summarizing my opinions was very different from the piledriving problem, where my written report reduces the possibility of mis-speaking, making a muddle out of a technical explanation,  or leaving out important supporting information.  In addition to the expected favorable results for both my customers, I’ve grown professionally from the experience of working two projects that should have seemed similar but where differences in pace and process caused them to be completely different.