Brent Coon. Photo: John Everett

Brent Coon‘s cases usually involve explosions — oil refinery disasters or drilling platform tragedies that hook juries with the kind of drama that registers big verdicts for his clients. So what would happen if the Beaumont plaintiffs lawyer took on something as dry as a construction contract dispute?

Not only did Coon end up with a $7 million final judgment against the Houston Independent School District (HISD) over its failure to pay his contractor client for renovating six of its campuses on July 24, he helped defeat a $13 million contract counterclaim the school district lodged against his client and two other parties.

Coon admits he’s never tried a contract dispute before.

“And now I’ve had one. It’s my first one to prosecute and my first one to defend. There were so many contracts and so many issues,” Coon said of the case.

Coon also said that before he decided to take on Fort Bend Mechanical v. HISD, he hadn’t read a construction contract since he was using a hammer professionally.

“Before I was a lawyer, I was a residential contractor. My background helped me get up to speed,” Coon said.

Fort Bend Mechanical had five contracts worth $30 million to renovate the six HISD campuses as part of a $1 billion bond package. Four of the projects were completed when HISD decided to terminate the projects under the contract after HISD won another $2 billion bond package. Fort Bend alleged that HISD spent new bond money for other contractors to work on projects they had already completed.

Fort Bend ultimately sued HISD for its failure to pay for the work it had completed on the contracts. And HISD responded with a $13 million counter claim against Fort Bend, alleging defects in their work — including claims against its bonding agent Hanover Insurance and another third party.

During a five-week trial that ended last month, Coon said he presented all five contracts between his client and HISD to the jury to determine if his client was owed money.

“We brought in an expert that explained the complexities of architectural contracts. We waded through each contract, what money was owed, and if so, did they have notice of the issues,” Coon said. “The jury had to look at the two different issues: whether or not the parties had notified each other and whether or not they were owed money.”

And despite the dryness of the contract language, Coon still found a way to insert some drama into the case by arguing to the jurors that HISD was wasting taxpayer’s money by failing to pay his client, and even using a subsequent bond package money to repeat projects his client had already completed.

“HISD was clearly shown to waste a lot of money — to waste taxpayer’s money — and grossly exaggerating the side of the case. That overreaching made the jury go our way,” Coon said.

Barry Rabon, a director in Houston’s Coats Rose who represents HISD in the case, declined to comment.

Coon, who took on the unfamiliar litigation at the behest of a lawyer who used to work at his firm, believes that his lack of experience in contract cases may have actually helped him win the case.

“HISD is not used to having big fights on their hand. Once plaintiffs lawyers sink their teeth in, off we go,” Coon said. “And that helped us at the end of the day. They’re used to contract lawyers.”