Whether in the Office or at Home, Bob Fitzsimmons Considers his View to be From Paradise

05.30.14 | Permalink

Bob Fitzsimmons represents general contractors, developers and subcontractors in large, multi-party, construction defect litigation. He also represents a variety of clients in product and general liability cases. A partner in the Miami office of Rumberger, Kirk & Caldwell, Bob discusses his 30-year practice, the rise and complexity of construction defect litigation, and his passion for his community.

Like many lawyers in the early days, almost all of my cases were personal injury. In my practice, I worked with many contractors in construction-related injuries and when insurance companies began handling cases for construction defects, my practice naturally grew in that direction. For the last 15-20 years, construction defect litigation has become an extremely active practice area. While a large percentage of my work is in this area, a third of my work remains product and general liability.

I enjoy the complexity of construction defects liability cases because they are challenging. They are essentially a product liability case, but the contractors do not make the product in the traditional sense as a manufacturer does. With a large, multi-family high rise or even in a large single family development, the association or owner has the right to sue each component as well as the designers and developer. Essentially, it becomes a product liability case on steroids.

Once a developer builds and sells more than 50 percent of the units, the maintenance of the general areas will be turned over to the condominium or homeowners association. At that time, a good board will get an engineer to inspect the building and identify what issues might need to be fixed. The general contractor works with the subcontractors to resolve issues.

It’s interesting because I act as a general contractor in litigation because there are so many claims for the subcontractors that were hired by the general contractor. Because these cases are so complicated, with so many pieces and issues affecting one another, lawyers will begin on a team handling one issue and then represent subcontractors and move up to the general contractors. You have to make sure that we don’t shoot ourselves in the foot because there are usually a number of attorneys involved for each step along the way. It requires a large amount of coordination and communication. Then, add in the association and insurance company lawyers and soon you have a room full of lawyers. Recently, we had a case go to court in Amelia Island where the courthouse was built in 1890. There was one outlet for 30 lawyers.

While construction defect cases don’t often go to trial, I have had two trials in last couple of weeks, so it does happen. When there is a trial, it’s typically over just a couple of lingering issues and most issues get resolved out of court.

Another piece of the puzzle is the insurance coverage issues. While we may not be dealing with them directly, we have to be aware of them and how they will affect litigation and negotiations. If there is insurance for damage, it won’t cover bad work, but it will cover damages that occurred as a result of the bad work.

In addition to the complexity of the cases, I also really enjoy mentoring young lawyers and helping them develop as well as working in the construction industry where I have found the clients to be straightforward, hardworking people. I have designated associates in all of our Florida offices working in construction-related defects and I have the pleasure of guiding them and mentoring them throughout the process until we get to the end stage where there are significant depositions, mediations or trial.

One of the most interesting and stimulating cases I’ve worked on over the years is serving as lead national counsel for all contractors involved in the Chinese Drywall multi-district litigation. I obtained great knowledge in class action and mass tort litigation where it is as much process as it is substance. I truly enjoyed that type of work.

We have a very familial environment here at RKC. Not only do we work together as a strong team, but we also enjoy each other’s company, go to lunch together and joke together. When one person is in trial, we are all interested and work together. I know everyone has my back and I’ve got theirs. It makes it really easy to come to work and it’s a good reason to be here.

I keep perspective by volunteering in my community. Doing work outside of law and giving back benefits the community, but it also makes me feel good. I was the president of my homeowner’s association from its inception for 14 years, have been active in the Coconut Grove Chamber of Commerce, Greater Miami Chamber and Chair of the Hall of Champions annual event where we honor sports figures from South Florida or South Florida teams each year. It is great working with business owners and community leaders to solve community problems. Of course, there is an inherent benefit of getting your name out there for potential new business, but that is not the reason for doing it. The reason I do it is because it offers perspective I might not have otherwise.

Professionally, I also believe in giving back and am an active member of the International Association of Defense Counsel (IADC), Defense Research Institute (DRI) construction committee and the Florida Bar Construction committee. I currently serve as chair of the construction committee for the IADC.

Every day I wake up in paradise and still live in the only house I’ve ever lived in. Thirty-five years ago I met my wife who was working in the film business in New York. I grew up in Brooklyn and was working as a sales rep for IBM during the day while I attended law school at night. My wife convinced me to go to the University of Miami as a visiting student for one year and never went to New York. After living in an apartment for my entire life, I felt like I had moved to paradise. Nobody lived above or below me and instead of having to walk to the park, I felt like I owned the park. Many years ago, we created the homeowners association, closed off streets to create an enclave just three miles south of Miami and have never left. We raised two daughters in our home and both are working, one for NASCAR and the other in the media industry in New York, ironically. Most of our social life is in the neighborhood where we have lived with many of our neighbors for decades.

Even though we live in paradise, we do travel. We vacation with our daughters in North Carolina at a house on a lake. I work with clients in many interesting places from Chicago to Southern California and since our daughters are grown, my wife frequently travels with me.

Although we enjoy many of the places we’ve been, nothing is quite like coming home at the end of the day. Growing up in Brooklyn, anywhere else you wake up is paradise. When I lived there and looked out the window, I saw another apartment. Now, I wake up to an incredible view each day with a palm tree out my window. It’s like a resort. When I’m not working, you’ll find me enjoying the park in my backyard.

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