This suit is brought by William F. Keefe, a building contractor, against Frank R. Johnson (herein referred to as the owner), for an alleged balance due under a building contract.
The parties requested the County Court to hear the case without a jury, and it was so heard.
On October 9, 1947, the plaintiff and defendant entered into a written contract whereby the plaintiff was to erect a residence for the defendant. The cost of this building is one of the chief disputes of the case, as the parties advance different interpretations of the contract. The contractor claims there is a balance due him of $3,784.38, with interest. The owner filed a counterclaim for $15,000, in which he alleged that much of the work was defective and that he was forced to complete the dwelling at his own expense.
This has been a cumbersome case to try. Not only were the hearings filled with technical testimony as to the quality and nature of the work performed, but also testimony had to be heard in order to interpret the contract.
It would appear that our law has evolved no entirely satisfactory method of determining disputes of this nature, where a contractor sues for a balance he alleges to be due for the construction of a building and the owner disputes the quantity and quality of the work.
There are at least three methods for the determination of issues of this nature: (1) by the traditional trial by jury; (2) by the trial judge, sitting alone without jury; (3) by arbitration.
Each method has its advantages and disadvantages. This must be expected in this particular type of case where the testimony is technical, profuse with mathematical detail, and cumbersome.
A trial by jury, running many days in this particular case, would have had many disadvantages. In this State it is questionable whether jurors are permitted to take notes on the testimony they hear.
The second method also has its disadvantages. The average trial judge lacks experience and knowledge in the field of building construction. Suffice it to say, many trial judges would rather hear any other type of case.
Arbitration would seem to be a satisfactory method whereby architects, materialmen, building contractors and others trained in the construction field, could decide many of the issues involved by an inspection of the premises. However, the parties in this case refused to send the matter to arbitration. One of them claimed that legal questions were involved concerning the interpretation of the contract, and that a board of three arbitrators would have one or more laymen thereon who would not be versed in legal principles.
It was suggested the trial court hear the case without jury. The trial court stated to the parties that it was not well versed in the field of building construction and was reluctant to assume the responsibility without technical assistance. The court suggested to the parties that they empower the court to select some architect, building contractor or similar specialist, who would sit in an advisory capacity. The parties so stipulated in writing, and the court designated William M. Hunt of Lambertville, New Jersey, an architect licensed to practice in New Jersey. The architect was unknown to the parties and his office is some 40 miles from the site of the disputed building. The trial court ruled on all questions of evidence, made decisions as to the interpretation of ...