Your project is coming along fine, despite the economy. You’ve weathered the squalls of bids, design changes, agency approval, and credit (mercifully), and now even construction completion is looking good. You can see the finish line through the haze on the horizon, and you’re fairly pleased with how you have pulled everything together with what has been a long haul through the system. You’re in the home stretch. You’re closing down the last items and payment obligations to ensure everything will get done. You didn’t even have to spend much money on legal fees in drafting the contract or during construction (that alone is reason to cheer for your department’s budget). You may just go on a “road show” to tout your expertise about how projects should be run. And then….

You receive a call from your project manager letting you know that a subcontractor says it wasn’t paid and will file a mechanic’s lien in five days if it doesn’t get a check. Well, how could that be? You have a record of payments to the general contractor, but you cannot find a release for those payments. You get two more calls from unpaid trades…. Yet, you feel somewhat confident; after all, the contract says the general contractor “is responsible” and you have that record showing you did pay him. It’s his responsibility to pay all the people he contracted with, right? Well, yes and no (of course!) is the legal answer your construction lawyer will likely give you.

Unfortunately, this scenario is becoming all too common in this lingering depressed construction environment. Tight bids, job or trade failures, and an ailing economy have trapped many owners and general contractors, causing them to potentially pay twice for work they thought was already “clear” and paid for.

Although each state’s laws on mechanic’s liens govern each party’s obligations and rights, in my next post I will provide you with some simple, general guidelines that owners and general contractors should keep in mind at the beginning of each project to help protect against the possibility of such a double payment.