When a “Small Job” Isn’t so Small after All

It is not uncommon that a project initially expected to be a “small” job becomes more complicated as work proceeds. This can often become a point of contention with clients, regardless of whether you have a written or oral contract. In the recent Provincial Court case of Portnoy and Khait v. Pacific West Mechanical, a plumbing service took a small financial hit, when a “small” job became more complex than originally planned.

The Facts
This case involved a couple (the “Homeowners”) that owned a condo unit in Vancouver. The Defendant was a plumbing contractor retained to perform plumbing kitchen repairs at the Homeowners’ condo unit. The Defendant estimated one hour to complete these repairs.

However, the repairs took longer than expected because the Homeowners had recently replaced their kitchen sink, which resulted in debris contamination in the plumbing lines. This fact was not known to either party when the time estimate for the plumbing work was originally provided. The additional work took an extra two to three hours to complete and the Defendant charged the Homeowners accordingly.

The Homeowners sued the Defendant to recover the amount of the extra costs they paid for this additional work.

The Decision
The adjudicator hearing the case accepted the Homeowners’ evidence that the contract was originally meant to be a fixed-price one. However, he also found there was “more to the story than the contractual arrangement”. Because the Defendant did not know about the debris in the plumbing lines when the contract was made, the adjudicator found it could not be held strictly to the contract in those circumstances. In the result, the Defendant was entitled to some additional payment, but also had to refund the Homeowners for part of the additional payments made.

Lessons Learned
Even if it initially appears that a job will be small, the possibility exists that the scope can expand due to unforeseen site conditions. Make sure your contract clearly stipulates whose responsibility it is to pay for additional costs resulting from unforeseen complications on site. Also, ensure you obtain signed authorization from your client in advance to show that extra payments for additional work have been agreed to.