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Vinci v. Bass





APPEAL from the Circuit Court of Cook County; the Hon. MEYER H. GOLDSTEIN, Judge, presiding.


Rehearing denied August 23, 1976.

This action was brought by an architect to recover $10,258.55 for services his firm had rendered the defendant under an oral contract. The jury found for the defendant and judgment was entered on the verdict. The plaintiff has appealed from the judgment and the trial court's adverse ruling on his post-trial motions. Both parties are represented by different counsel in this court than in the trial court.

The circumstances giving rise to this appeal are these: In late January 1971, the defendant, Bill Bass, hired the architect, John Vinci, to prepare interior designs for his apartment at 20 East Cedar Street, Chicago, and agreed to pay him a fee of $15 an hour. Bass was using the apartment as a home and office but hoped that, with some remodeling, it could also be used as an art gallery. Vinci prepared and submitted to Bass drawings for the proposed art gallery and plans for furnishings, paintings, air-conditioning and electrical lines. In March 1971 he estimated the construction costs at $42,000 and sent Bass an $1,800 bill for his services. Bass paid $1,000 on account and Vinci continued working on designs for the gallery until Bass, who had learned that his building was being converted into condominium apartments, told him to stop. In June Vinci sent another bill for services rendered and Bass made a second payment of $1,000.

During the summer of 1971 Bass talked with Vinci about the possibility of purchasing either his apartment or a new residence. At his request Vinci accompanied him when he looked at other possible homes. There was one residence on Dearborn Street that Bass thought might be suitable for use as a home, office and art gallery, but when Vinci estimated that the cost of remodeling it would be around $100,000, Bass told him that he "didn't want to spend that kind of money." In August Bass bought his apartment as a condominium for $60,000 and paid Vinci $150 for his assistance in the house-hunting project.

In September Bass asked Vinci to resume preparing plans for the apartment. They had several conversations in which various suggestions were made. In addition to the items included in the March estimate, it appears that Bass suggested a burglar alarm system. Vinci suggested the installation of a mechanized recessed lighting system for the art gallery, demolition of the concrete stairway to the apartment's upper level and its replacement with a cantilevered staircase, installation of double-paned windows with blinds between the panes, reconstruction of the ceiling in the front hall, modernization of three bathrooms, installation of central air-conditioning and modification of the apartment's electrical system to accommodate it, and construction of an onyx wall. In his March estimate of $42,000, Vinci had listed the cost of three of these suggested improvements ($5,000 for air-conditioning, $3,000 for modification of the electrical system and $1,500 for an onyx wall) but he never prepared an itemized estimate of the costs of his later suggestions. He testified that, instead, he attempted to provide oral information of their cost, but he admitted that the only figure he could remember giving was $10,000 for replastering the hall ceiling. He also testified that he retained the services of a mechanical engineering firm and a structural engineer to handle the technical problems that he believed some of the suggested improvements entailed. He stated that he told Bass that these outside consultants would be needed for the proper preparation of plans. Bass testified that he was not informed of this.

In February 1972 Vinci submitted the plans to various contractors. Four bids were received which ranged from $105,057 to $153,268. After Bass saw the bids and stated that they were much too high, Vinci held a meeting with the lowest bidder to see whether its bid could be reduced. Their negotiations resulted in a bid of $70,000. Bass was not satisfied and suggested in a letter dated March 8, 1972, that Vinci send copies of the blueprints to a contractor known to Bass. The resulting bid was approximately $98,000.

On May 4, 1972, Vinci sent Bass a bill for $12,001.16 — $7,565 for architectural services at $15 an hour, $4,091.16 for the mechanical engineers and $345 for the structural engineer. He indicated, however, that he would be willing to accept a lesser amount ($10,606.84) — a figure he had arrived at by using an alternate flat percentage formula suggested by the American Institute of Architects. Four days later, Bass sent Vinci $3,500: a $2,000 check for himself and one for $1,500 payable to the mechanical engineering firm. In his accompanying letter Bass promised full payment within a 60-day period; however, he instructed Vinci to send him notice of the balance which was due. He testified that he made this request because he found it impossible to ascertain the actual balance from Vinci's bill and letter. Despite repeated requests Bass made no further payment and Vinci filed this suit.

Following a jury verdict which awarded him nothing, Vinci presented motions for judgment notwithstanding the verdict, for a new trial and for leave to amend his complaint to conform to the evidence. The motions were denied.

Vinci's complaint alleged that Bass owed him $10,258.55. But in his letter of March 4, 1972, he asked for alternative sums of $10,606.84 and $12,001.16. His testimony conflicted with these figures. At one point he said that $8,500 was due him; at another that $8,195 would be fair, and at another that the balance would be $4,900 if the flat percentage formula (suggested in his March 4 letter) were computed in conjunction with the lowest bid of $70,000. He testified he spent 600 hours developing his blueprints at $15 an hour ($9,000). A registered architect who testified in his behalf said that the drawings prepared by Vinci represented at least 800 hours of work ($12,000), plus hidden time not reflected by the drawings which is usually computed at three times the hours spent on the drawings. He said a bill for 1,500 hours of work ($22,500) would have been reasonable.

To compound the confusion that may have been caused by this testimonial uncertainty, the jury was told in an issues instruction prepared by Vinci and given to the jury at his request that he had the burden of proving each of the following propositions:

"First, that the sum of $15,258.55 is a reasonable sum for the plaintiff's services;

Second, that there is due and owing the plaintiff a balance of $10,258.55.

If you find from your consideration of all the evidence that each of these propositions has been proved then your verdict should be for the plaintiff, but if, on the other hand, you find from your consideration of all the evidence that any of these propositions ...

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