Friday, October 19, 2007

Original Sin

I threatened to sue a man today.

I think many of us will mention their lawyers in the heat of an argument, usually out of frustration. Clearly we are a litigious society, where civil action is considered by some to be a vocation rather than a last resort. My philosophy has always been that when you bring a lawyer into a dispute, both parties lose and the lawyer wins.

Sometimes, though, you don't really care if you lose, just that the other guy does. Today was one of those days.

I'll preface the story by relating a lesson I learned in my Theology 205 class about original sin. Many of you know that I am not a deist, but neither am I atheist. I simply figure that if there is a higher being who wants to send me an unambiguous message that they will do so. Some of you will say that I am sent a message every day I'm alive, but hear me out. The lesson, which has stuck with me for a quarter century and is a guiding principle of my life is simple.

Take responsibility for your actions. All sin comes from avoiding said responsibility.

In Genesis, it is not that Eve takes the apple and eats from it, nor is it that she gives it to Adam and he eats from it as well, despite a rather stern admonition from God. The sin is that when asked who ate the apple, Adam blames Eve, and Eve blames the Serpent. It is the avoidance of responsibility that is the sin, not the act per se.

This is not to say that acts are not harmful, cruel, stupid, or any other adjective you want to choose. It is that the *sin* is in not being willing to say, "I did it, and I'm willing to suffer the consequences." If you are willing to take responsibility, you are less likely to commit an act that carries a harsh penalty, whether monetary, social, or even just knowing you've done wrong.

Your mileage may vary, but this is the terminology I use to describe this basic building block of my ethical standards. Not everyone lives this way, and it drives me mad. What makes me madder is that much of the time people will try to lie their way out of responsibility over something as minor as money, and not much at that. It is almost as if the act of getting away with something is more valuable than their own soul. I really don't know how people who do this can look themselves in the mirror. I certainly couldn't.

So it was that when we discovered that our ductwork in our new house was made of a particularly braindead material, in this case wire mesh tubing surrounded by insulation and a thin metal film, and that said material cannot be cleaned, and that I on occasion suffer from asthsma and insist on having clean ducts, it was with hope that the people who inspected our home would step up and admit that they had missed an element that is costing us not only $3500 to replace, but we are left with no heat until that work is done. We have been fortunate to find a company that is replacing the ductwork as I type, and by tomorrow night we should be able to use something other than space heaters to stay warm.

I will not give out the name of the inspectors, but will say that their first reaction to every problem I've found in the house and notified them of has been to cover their asses. With the mold we found, they had a point that it was very unlikely they would have detected anything without pulling back vinyl wallpaper, and I freely admitted this and let them off of the hook. In the case of the ductwork, however, I stood there and watched the assistant point a flashlight into a register and tell me that it was a very good idea to have my ducts cleaned, and that these looked a little dirty but otherwise fine.

We discovered the problem after taking possession of the house. Because the mold had been spread through the ducts by the drywall crew that had had the heat on while they tore down the drywall with the mold on it, cleaning our ducts became essential not only to take care of the mold, but because it's simply good practice when buying a home. The Power Vac guy, Matt, came out, told me we couldn't do anything about it, and suggested that I should look into replacement. He spent 10 seconds looking at the register before he noticed it was mesh. Keep in mind that this also means that there is insulation wrapped around this mesh with nothing keeping it from circulating around the house. Would you want to live in this house?

A call to the inspector had me listening to him telling me, over and over, that he'd never heard of such a thing, and that he doubted it existed. He arranged to have his assistant come by today with an HVAC guy to take a look, as he was going in for knee surgery the following morning. This is important, because during the inspection I listened to him discuss an awful lot of issues related to his knee during a 2 hour phone call, and not so much inspecting, which his assistant was doing.

The next day, our mold tester was out (who happened to be the guy they'd brought out about the mold). He had been very analytical and matter-of-fact, which impresses me in an inspector, so he took one look at the ducting and declared it to be something that our original inspector should have caught and mentioned. He also found another problem the inspectors had missed, a leak in the roof into an eave area that was plainly obvious.

At this point, I was pretty certain that I was going to insist that the inspector pay for the duct replacement. Had we been aware of the problem I would have asked the sellers to reduce the price of the house by the cost of duct replacement, and could have done so at a time that would have been convenient for us and for the folks doing the painting and drywall work in the house. I was not given that chance.

Today, the assistant showed up with his pet HVAC guy, and told me that the product was code during construction (although he'd never seen it before and didn't know it existed), that there had never been a recall effort, that his job as inspector was to tell me what things were or weren't code, not what might cause a health problem. My wife lit into him at that point, telling him that he was a professional and as such his job was to represent us as his clients, not hide behind semantics. An ex-inspector had already told me he should have seen it, regardless of whether he was aware of the product, and that it was more than reasonable for us to want to replace it.

With a room full of people suggesting to this guy that he tell his boss (under morphine for his knee pain) that he should do the right thing, including my realtor, a contractor, and the guy replacing the ductwork, but still not the slightest sense of willingness to take responsibility nor even say that he felt for our plight, I pulled out the big guns.

I don't if you've ever been on a jury in a civil action, but I have. You should be aware that juries have a strong propensity in such matters to want the wronged party to be compensated for what has happened to them, and a willingness to have whoever is in the defendent's chair pay for it with even the slightest chance of responsibility. Frankly, I hate this, and in the jury I was empaneled on I fought tooth and nail to force a party that had in all likelihood saved lived by their actions pay damages. I lost that fight.

The assistant had also been on civil actions as a juror, and when I pulled that particular card out, the look on his face told me that I would get what I was asking for: the cost of replacing my ductwork minus the cost of the cleaning (as I'd saved that money - I am nothing if not honest), plus a refund of their fee as I could no longer trust their inspection work. That comes to just about the cost of the ductwork replacement, as the fee and the cleaning were the same cost. At $3500, that's about the same as an expert witness or two, and nothing for the lawyers. And that's if they won the suit, which is unlikely. Keep in mind that the main inspector spent little time actually inspecting, that they already missed a leak, and that by claiming they'd never seen the product they looked stupid.

One other thing: Inspectors live by their reputations (as do we all, although theirs is critical). Here stands my realtor, who pretty much runs this community's real estate market, and that horse has clearly left the barn - she's already taken his name off of the very list that we used to choose him. Throw in a complaint to the Portland Contractor's Board, a grade of F on Angie's List, a wife who worked for six different branches of one of the most successful real estate companies in town (and was loved by all of them), of whom many are now working for different companies, and whatever other way I can tell people to avoid these guys, and the math becomes very clear.

Take responsibility for your failings.

The owner is still under morphine, so I gave them two weeks to do the right thing. After that, you'll know his name, as will quite a few realtors in town. I would estimate the potential loss to his business to be in the tens of thousands per year, perhaps more. My guess is he'll never inspect a home in this community again if my realtor has a thing to say about it. I have three or four people willing to testify on my behalf who either inspected the ducting or were present during my conversation. I have nothing better to do with my time than demonstrate to this individual that he should take responsibility for his actions. I will also state publically that were we to actually go to court (unlikely) and I were to win a large settlement, say more than $20,000, all money not going to the prosecution of the case after paying for the ductwork would be donated to a worthy cause, probably a non-lethal animal shelter or to Iraq War vets. Because this is not about me trying to make litigation a vocation, it is about teaching a lesson that this man should have learned before he turned 25.

Will he learn it? I doubt it - if you haven't figured this sort of thing out by his age (I'm guessing mid-50's), you aren't ever going to get it. But I'll leave a scar, and he won't forget that. I am a fair man. I am an honest man. I am giving this person a chance to do the right thing, to have a backbone, to look at himself in the mirror and not cringe. I'll let you know how it turns out.

Confidential to Chris: Sorry that you can't read this on your iPhone yet. Someday soon. ;-)

1 comment:

Matthew said...

That stinks Doug. :(

I know some realtors myself and can help on that end if it comes to that.

It doesn't look good though. My experience has been that people don't change or learn as often as they should things they should have been brought up with.

Good luck.