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PATRICIA H. THOMPSON


Building a Construction Litigation Practice

When preparing for a case, Patricia H. Thompson likes to put on a hard hat and tour her clients’ construction sites. “Seeing things firsthand helps me understand just what has happened on a job site,” says Thompson, a shareholder with Carlton Fields’ Miami office. “My practice is all about dispute resolution, so I like to gather the facts and talk with the professionals working on a building.”

For more than 30 years, Thompson has represented clients in almost all aspects of construction projects, while handling other types of commercial litigation as well. “I really enjoy my practice, working with the architects, engineers and builders who are creating new structures, shaping the landscape of the community and providing places for people to work.”

A pioneer in a complex legal field, Thompson has built a wealth of knowledge about the intricacies of surety bonds, insurance and financing for construction projects. She knows how to identify what happened, how a problem occurred and who is responsible when something goes wrong.

Years ago, she recalls representing the surety company in a West Virginia case where a contractor building K-mart stores suddenly went out of business. “Before that case was over, I knew exactly how to level the ground, put in the pilings and the walls, and finish the interior of a K-mart store,” says Thompson, whose more recent clients include contractors for the Metrorail, Metromover, public schools and luxury condominiums.

Tracey Haley, managing claims counsel for Zurich Surety in Dallas, says Thompson has handled the firm’s biggest and most complex cases for more than 20 years. “Patricia is a very sincere and caring person, and she makes that the hallmark of a successful practice,” she says. “She is well respected from both sides of the bar and the community as well.”

Last year, Thompson was recognized by the American Bar Association (ABA) with the Martin J. Andrew Award for Lifetime Achievement in Fidelity and Surety Law, and this fall she was honored by the Greater Miami Chamber of Commerce as a Leadership Miami alumni who has excelled in her field. Thompson is also a fellow of the American College of Construction Lawyers, and has written more than 15 professional law journal articles and chapters in other national publications.

When not working with clients and poring over construction documents, Thompson enjoys reading murder mysteries and distance walking - she’s done two half-marathons. She also sings in a church choir and is teaching herself to play guitar. She and her husband Jack Thompson, a retired attorney, have a son Johnny who’s a student at Wheaton College in Illinois.

From Teaching to Law

A native of the Midwest, Thompson enrolled at St. Olaf College intending to become a high school English teacher. But when she stepped into a classroom as a student teacher in her senior year, she realized that teaching high school was not for her. “I’m an emotional person and I knew I would take my students’ problems home with me each night,” she says.

In that spring of 1973, Thompson went to an off-campus political meeting where the keynote speaker was an attorney. As she recalls, “That woman was very knowledgeable and sophisticated, and I said to myself, ‘I want to be an attorney like her.’ I came home and broke the news to my dad, who was very traditional. He said you first need to work in a law firm to see if you would like that kind of work.”

That summer, Thompson’s father connected her with an attorney friend in Hudson, Wisconsin. The friend let Thompson fill in for a vacationing secretary at his firm--at no pay.. “My dad’s friend was a business lawyer and problem solver,” she says. “Every person who came in that door needed something that only an attorney could do. That was all the incentive I needed to apply to law school.”

As a student at Vanderbilt University Law School, Thompson found she enjoyed public speaking and felt confident about pursuing a career in litigation. But she wasn’t sure of her field until she took a course on mortgages and surety insurance — one of the driest courses in the program. “The class was filled with third-year students and I was a year younger, so I was doubly intimidated,” she says. “But I made it through and felt I had a solid understanding of these very complex, technical issues.”

After earning her law degree in 1976, Thompson moved to Miami for a summer internship with the old-line Miami firm Bradford, Williams, McKay, Kimbrell, Hamann and Jennings. When Thompson passed the Bar, she became an associate and was assigned to the firm’s surety and construction litigation division.

“I found myself fascinated by this field, which I was learning through my cases,” she says. “I studied mechanics liens, surety bonds and all the different types of construction documents for different projects. It was a field with very few women, and I was able to build a successful practice.”

Handling Construction Disputes

Through the decades, Thompson has tried more than 46 cases to verdict or award, and resolved far more by summary judgment or other dispositive motions. At Carlton Fields, she also counsels clients about employment claims, insurance claim investigations and coverage analysis.

“I enjoy working with experts who are a vital part of almost every construction dispute,” she says. “Architects are fascinating people, who are creative and visually oriented with a vision for the project. But engineers are my favorite witnesses. They stick to the facts and say only what they know. I also enjoy talking with the contractors and subcontractors who do the actual construction work day in and day out.”

When it comes to presenting a client’s case to a jury, Thompson focuses on bringing all the different pieces of the puzzle together to tell a clear story in the courtroom. “You want the supervisors and managers to walk the jury members through their own experiences, and what happened if someone on the site made a mistake, slowed things down or didn’t cooperate with the project team,” she says. “I also want to be sure the jury understands the timeline for the project and how a delay can have serious financial repercussions for the owner or developer.”

Thompson says one of the biggest challenges in a construction case is helping the jury understand the damages, which can be calculated very differently by the plaintiff’s side and the defense. Another issue is explaining the intricacies of the contracts that specify the parties’ duties and responsibilities.

Thompson says the volume of construction litigation is directly related to the level of new projects in the market. During the downturn, when construction came to a standstill, contractors and developers tended to negotiate rather than file suits against each other. But with the recent upturn in work, Thompson is as busy today as she’s ever been.

As Zurich Surety claims counsel Haley says, “Patricia is passionate about her work, but she lets everyone else do the yelling and screaming. She will listen to both sides as they explain their positions, ask the right questions and then put together a deal that both sides will accept. She has a tremendous presence in these matters and is always a true legal professional.”

South Florida Legal Guide 2014 edition


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