Report writing is an essential component of business, however it can expose you and your business to potential risks if not composed correctly.
There are a number of situations that arise during the course of your business life which will require you to provide a written report or written response regarding a claim against you or a third party, perhaps even one of your competitors.
Examples of this include:
- Requests by members of the public or insurance companies to comment on or advise in respect of the workmanship or potential liability of one of your competitors;
- Reports requested by customers, manufacturers, suppliers and retailers or their insurers on work carried out by you or others;
- Responding to claims made against you by customers, insurers or others.
In these situations there is a real danger that by responding in writing, you are exposing yourself to legal liability in respect of your own workmanship, or in respect of opinions expressed by you (ostensibly “expert opinions”) on the workmanship of others, or the quality of a particular product or service, or the cause of a particular problem or damage.
Often requests for responses/reports in writing are put in such a way that you are led to believe that there is no serious implications from providing such letters. It is also often suggested that providing the report will be purely confidential.
It is easy to respond spontaneously to such requests without giving proper consideration to the potential consequences of the words you are writing to yourself or others. It is easy to stray from your own area of expertise and to suddenly be giving opinions on matters which you have neither the knowledge, nor experience or legal right to be commenting on.
The reality is:
- Whenever you provide a report on the workmanship/quality of services or products, someone is going to be pleased with your views and somebody else will be unhappy. For example, the customer may be happy but the supplier may not be or vice versa. Unless your expert opinion is backed up by the necessary understanding of all of the facts and technical issues, you may be exposed to liability. Such liability may extend to damages and costs resulting from reliance on your report.
- Whenever you provide a report on your own workmanship and its quality, there is potential liability. Very often, because of not understanding the nature and extent of your potential liability, you expose yourself unnecessarily to potential claims.
For these reasons, the following guidelines should always be applied in considering requests to provide reports or respond in writing:
- Always give careful consideration to the consequences before agreeing to provide reports or written responses;
- Be especially careful about providing opinions on the workmanship/products of competitors;
- Be conscious of your own limitations in terms of technical knowledge, product knowledge and experience and the ability to properly investigate and present written material;
- Never comment on matters outside of your expertise; eg being a carpet cleaner does not necessarily make you an expert on carpet manufacturing/construction or textile fabrics.
- Should you decide to provide such a report, ensure a proper and thorough investigation of all relevant issues has been carried out before responding;
- Always seek the comment of a suitably qualified third party on the contents of your report (supplier, experienced tradesperson, lawyer) before sending such letters. It is easy to get tunnel vision and overlook a critical factor or potential for liability to you.
You will have received requests from parties along the lines of “Can you just jot us a quick line confirming that …” It is rarely that simple and such requests should always trigger the warning bells.
It is of concern that we have come across a number of so called “reports” which are superficial, poorly worded and in a number of cases, completely wrong in the conclusions which have been drawn. It is only a matter of time before someone is taken to task over the damage caused by such careless and unprofessional behaviour.
In most cases we are operating at the outer limits of our training and expertise. If in doubt, seek advice from people in the industry who are qualified to assist or professionals or alternatively, refer the request to such persons. In many cases, the person requesting the report should be prepared to pay for a proper investigation and report by a suitably qualified industry professional.
*Paul Pritchard is immediate past president of the Carpet Cleaners Association of New Zealand (CCANZ)
This first appeared in the May issue of INCLEAN NZ magazine.