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Contractors are angry about not being paid for work on the Astros-Nats spring training facility

New York Yankees v Houston Astros

WEST PALM BEACH, FL - MARCH 19: A general view of The Ballpark of the Palm Beaches during the spring training game between the Houston Astros and the New York Yankees on March 19, 2017 in West Palm Beach, Florida. The Yankees defeated the Astros 6-4. (Photo by Joel Auerbach/Getty Images)

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The Palm Beach Post has a story today about subcontractors who are angry that they have not been paid for work on the new spring training facility for the Astros and Nationals, which opened up in Palm Beach this past February. Some of the subcontractors say they are being forced out of business because of non-payment. One says he risks losing his house. Some are blaming the Astros and the whole story is hooked on the contrast between the Astros hoisting a World Series trophy last week while a small construction outfit in Florida can’t pay its bills.

It’s a bad situation for those guys to be sure, but this is almost certainly not a Nationals or Astros story. Indeed, unless some new information comes out not present in the linked news article, it’d be wrong to cast it in those terms and blame the teams simply because they’re the most famous parties to the story.

This is mostly because the story says it’s subcontractors not being paid, and their payment is the responsibility of the general contractor, not the owner of the building being built. Sure, if the Nats and Astros stiffed the general contractor, that would explain it not, in turn, paying the subs, but there’s nothing in the story suggesting that happened. If it was the case, you can bet your butt that the general would be pointing fingers at the teams, and it’s not. No, this sounds like a situation in which the subs are mad at the general contractor, and the dispute is between them.

That part aside, it’s worth noting that there doesn’t necessarily have to be a bad guy or a good guy in this kind of case. These sorts of disputes are common, actually.

In my past life I litigated a lot of construction cases. it’s its own entire area of the law. Most people are surprised to hear this, but the entire construction business is based on contracts (thus the word “contractor,” duh) and every time you have a contract, especially one involving a lot of money, there is a good chance people will have disagreements over things. I know people who spend 100% of their careers litigating disputes arising out of construction projects. It’s steady work if you can get it. When times are good there are tons of projects that can go wrong. When times are tough, everyone is underbidding to get the scarce work and fighting for every nickel. The common denominator: lawyers are terrible.

Anyway, large, complex projects such as professional sports facilities are especially prone to construction disputes. A big reason for it: they’re rare and unique projects. While a contractor may build 10 strip malls a year and thus knows exactly what to bid on the job, it’s not too often that they build state-of-the-art minor league facilities. There aren’t a ton of those around. Yes, there are specialized contractors who are used to doing sports facility projects, but if public money is involved, a lot of local businesses are going to be favored and they’re not likely to have a ton of experience with this stuff, resulting in a lot of guesswork on how much contractors and subcontractors bid. Added difficulty: the deadlines are hard when it comes to sports facilities. If a strip mall opens a couple of weeks late, money can fix the problem. If a sports facility opens two weeks late, the entire season is messed up.

When you got a unique project with a tough deadline, you’re bound to have problems. Maybe the general contractor underestimated how much the job would cost and bid low, and now he’s trying to make up his money by stiffing the subs. Maybe an electrical subcontractor has never built, say, a press box or whatever before and messed up the job, costing everyone more money and the general is justified in not paying for their mistakes. Maybe the schedule that was laid out at the beginning of the project was poorly conceived, was too compressed and ended up causing the carpet guys to be there the same day as the HVAC guys and everyone got in everyone’s way. Maybe it’s a combination of these things. It probably is. Like I said, lawyers make bank on these cases. A big part of it is because there are a million variables to argue about.

All of which is to say, don’t let some talk radio guy or newspaper columnist turn the Astros or the Nationals into the bad guys over this. Sure, they can be the bad guys for taking tax dollars for the stadium in the first place or for, I dunno, firing Dusty Baker or something. But not for the construction snafus. Unless there’s more to this than we’re hearing, it’s likely not their fault.

Follow @craigcalcaterra