Christopher S. Suba is a native of Alexandria, Louisiana and has spent most of his life in Baton Rouge. Chris is a partner with J.R. Clary, Jr. and their practice is based almost entirely on litigation of plaintiff commercial business and personal injury matters. They strive to provide the highest level of care in representing a wide range of clients from injured persons to disadvantaged small businesses. Mr. Suba is known for his dedication and the practical knowledge that he delivers to each and every client, whomever they are.
Congratulations Chris. Could you give us a little background on this breach of construction contract case? It is a little different than the Personal Injury stories we often report on.
Definitely. Roland Alonso, and the company he’d owned and operated for over 30 years, RCS Contractors, Inc., were my clients. While this was a construction litigation matter, my client was the small, locally owned, regional construction company. He was the sole owner and worked on various projects in the region, starting his own business built on successfully by bidding on state and federal projects to build roads and bridges in the Southern part of Louisiana and Mississippi. After Hurricane Katrina in 2005, there were a lot of larger, national construction companies coming in from all over the country trying to get in on rebuilding New Orleans and the surrounding region, many because of their pre-existing relationship with the United States Army Corp of Engineers. These large companies had the financial ability to get the federal contracts, but not the work resources in the state to build them so they would end up subcontracting all the work out. In this case, Westcoast Corporation hired RCS Contractors, Inc. to perform all active construction. Westcoast performed none of the construction – it was my Louisiana-based plaintiff who carried the mail.
The circumstances were not glamourous at all. RCS was replacing a 36-inch sewage drain system underneath a roadway. Given its proximity to the Mississippi River, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers had to design the project. Long story short, the company that hired RCS to do the actual physical construction merely “managed” the project and the contract for the larger General Contractor that had the contract with government – again, with Roland his guys doing well over 99% of the work; providing all labor and materials and engaging any other necessary subcontractors. Before active construction even began, the project was plagued with design errors and conditions on the ground that made it impossible to build. Ultimately, there were numerous delays including a catastrophic rise in the Mississippi River which further delayed construction. These delays, while certainly excessive, were not abnormal from time to time in a project of this type. The big players at the table wanted to make as much money as they could. Management and financing of the project quickly fell on RCS, as the flow of resources from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers wasn’t making it down to my guy performing all the work. After over a year of delays and countless other obstacles, the federal money started to dry up and everyone but the plaintiff, RCS, seemed to have been paid. These “middlemen” had taken all the spoils of the poorly managed government contract and, by the time RCS was to be paid for their work, there was nothing left.
Our role here seemed simply…fight for the little guy. I mean, we had a plaintiff that started his company 30 years ago and it’s now closed because of this. Most folks operate small businesses on a tight margin and so did our guy, Roland. A $500,000.00 loss to him was catastrophic. So, we sued them. The Defendant refused to pay and I mean refused. After two failed mediations, I was offered $45,000 the Friday afternoon before we started trial on Monday morning. When the defendant made this offer you’d have thought from his demeanor that he was giving me the gift of my lifetime and that I was just a fool for thinking I was going to try this case and win. However, from the beginning of trial, I hoped credibility would be the key. So, I made it clear to the jury that we were seeking nothing more than what Mr. Roland was owed for the work he completed on the project. We cast the case as one of betrayal and that only one side was worthy of being believed – us. Ultimately, the jury awarded us my guy all of the monies that were outstanding under the contract in actual damages, but also found that the defendant had acted in bad faith in breaching the contract and awarded us additional damages totaling over $777,000.00, along with attorney’s fees and costs bring the verdict to just under $1mil.
That’s incredible — and wonderful for your client! Given all the layers of contracts and contractors, how did you get to that place where you were able to convince the jury of what really happened?
We used what I learned at the College and worked on discovering the story quite a bit to figure out who was the real villain in all of this and where the actual betrayal could be shown. At first, we thought he villain was obvious — it was the defendant who hired Roland. But thru discovering the story, we learned there was another villain — the main villain — and that was the prime contractor on the project, the bigger company that got all the contracts from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and then sub-let them out while they took their cut off the top without doing any work. We were able to present this story of dual villains, complicit in a betrayal story just as they actually were – money-hungry corporations, abusing federal funds and shafting their sub-contractors, here our guy. They didn’t care about Roland, or the company he’d built from the ground up. They didn’t care about the one person that was doing all the work on the ground for them, and it was the one person they were contractually obligated to take care of. The problem from a legal perspective was that the contract protected them and it is very difficult to prove “bad faith” breach of contract, which we needed to get penalties and attorney’s fees. We had good facts about what really happened on the ground. How Roland was misled and lulled into a false sense of security and ultimately financed and funded this entire project himself. Being the man he was, and even while the project was riddled with problems, he continued to work without any money. In the very end, not only did they not pay him, but they tried to hold him responsible for all the problems and delays. They blamed him for everything, all the while walking away with every cent they sought and obtained from the federal government.
Other than helping you prepare the case, how did your TLC training help in the court room?
We did not have the luxury of selecting our jury because it was in Federal court, but I was able to get a better sense of the jury in my Opening Statement by telling a personal story that related to the case, just like I’d learned at TLC. I used to be a bartender, so I told a story about if at the beginning of my shift tending bar my boss had put a tip jar at the end of the bar and said that at the end of the night all of those tips were mine. However, when the night ended, he changed his mind and simply decided to keep them all for himself. Obviously, I would have felt betrayed. I worked hard for those tips, perhaps harder because I knew at the end of the day I was going to be rewarded based on how hard I’d worked. Not only did would all of my hard work not have benefited me but it actually would have benefited only him and took from me that which I had rightfully earned. I asked the jury in my Opening Statement if they thought that would be fair. I also promised the jury that I was never going to ask them for anything more than Roland was entitled to receive under the contract. These were not arbitrary numbers. This is what he was owed. I presented them with the facts and in the end, they gave me more than I’d ever asked for, almost twice as much. While my client needed the monies that he was owed, he desperately wanted the jury to tell him he was right and that they were wrong. I truly believe that he would have been just as happy with $1.00. Ultimately, it was the techniques learned through TLC and how to present my Opening Statement that gained me the credibility with the jury that I needed to win, keeping it all the way through to the end. That is how we won. I was able to remind them of what I told them in the beginning and I stuck to my word.
The kinds of cases that you work are so heavily contracts and numbers, how did you see that that training you would get at The Trial Lawyers College was going to be something that would work in that kind of practice?
I do all kinds of plaintiffs’ work. That plaintiff may be injured, it may be someone that was wrongfully terminated, it may be someone who was taken advantage of in a contractual situation. If I feel like someone has been taken advantage of, I’m going to help them out. The human principles we learn in TLC and relating to a jury enabled me to take something as abstract as a contract dispute and make it human. At the end of the day, it is a human problem. I can find a way to bring the human story to the surface regardless of what the dispute is. This case is a great example of that. It was about that human condition. We took some very dry subject matter and we won the trial because we presented it to the jury in a way that they could find something in themselves, find a time where they had been treated unfairly and relate. I think a lot of people that go to the College are afraid to tackle cases that they feel don’t have the human story, at least not on its face. At the end of the day, all cases have a human story. You just have to find it and highlight it.
What was it that told you that it was the right time for you to go to the Trial Lawyers College — I mean its a 3-week commitment away from home and work!
It was a combination of feeling like I had enough experience actually practicing law, versus having just the right amount of inexperience. It was a balance between the two. I was getting to a point where I would gain something from that extra little push that I thought the College was going to give me. At the time, the biggest thing blocking my progress as an attorney was my own self. I was very insecure about my abilities as a practitioner, and I knew just from the Regional Seminars that I had attended that I would get much more out of the 3-week College on a personal level that would allow me to approach my practice and my clients more successfully. I am an incredibly formulaic human being. I’m not a very theatrical person. My personality is to just cut to the chase – logical, logical, logical. You’re forced to think outside the box in the College. I was ready to give myself to the process and I did. I left it all on the table, I worked my butt off, and I left there with a different perspective on trial practice. Any time I question myself about handling a situation, the first thing that pops into my mind is – what can I use from TLC to get through this? I mean, I go to it. Last summer, I had the pleasure of working with my classmates Kiel Garella and Jeff Dingwall to try a case together in Federal court up in the Western District of Louisiana. Kiel was in Charlotte, N.C. at the time and Jeff is in San Diego but those guys came to Shreveport, Louisiana and we won over a jury in a conservative district against Union Pacific Railroad Company. I mean, it was beautiful and so much damn fun. We TLC’ed the crap out of that case. We spent weeks together from time to time. We went through our openings. We prepared our client using one of the psychodramatists from the College. We really worked it, and this was just the first summer after we’d left the college. We were high on it. But, when you have other people like that working with you that you love and respect, it’s obviously much easier. However, I was able to do the same thing on a smaller scale for this case, using my staff and my law partner, a staff member from the College, J.R. Clary. He and I use the TLC method in our practice regardless of who the client is. It doesn’t have to be the most gut-wrenching story. I can take a boring contract dispute between two corporate entities and turn it into a story that a jury can relate to – because of what I learned on a ranch in Wyoming.
What’s your favorite part of the trial?
It’s so bizarre. If you had asked me this question a year ago, I would have said cross-examination of adverse witnesses. But now my favorite part of the trial is the summation, the closing. It goes back to being prepared if you know all the facts. I spent two nights writing my summation for this trial and I ended up looking at it maybe once. The entire thing just came out. It was unscripted. I mean, when I got up there I… I just felt it. I felt that truth was on my side and, after hearing everything, I could actually feel that the jury knew it too. As I visited with them, I knew what they wanted to hear, what they needed to hear. From there, I just told them I trusted them.
How do you get to that place where you can feel what the jury wants to hear?
Ultimately, it’s a lot of blind faith mixed with a little bit of intuition. But, it is all based in story. I had the troy that made sense. I had the person betrayed by greed. I could feel they believed me because I knew every detail presented to them over the course of the trial and could contrast that with what the defense had presented to them. From there, what more do they need to hear?
How do you define success in a trial setting?
For me it comes from satisfying the client. If your client can see that you have taken this group of strangers and convinced them to identify with their pain, their anger, their fear, and let there be some connection, at the end of the day they’re agreeing that either you’re right or you’re wrong, that’s a huge success. The biggest success is having a client that knows their cause has been presented in a way that those people unanimously agreed with them.
About Christopher Suba: