Claims Retrospective: A Clear Understanding of the Division of Labor Is Critical to Reducing an Engineer’s Liability on Large Projects
We have seen several claims against engineers who work on shop drawings for a specific contractor on large projects.
These claims appear to be a result of the division of labor between the engineer of record, who has responsibility for the overall design of the project, and the engineer working on only a specific portion of the project. For example, structural engineers who design connections for the steel fabricator/installer or design concrete caps or haunches for the concrete contractor usually requiring calculations and/or shop drawings. Engineers working on these specific projects should limit their responsibilities only to what they have been contracted to complete.
It is not unusual for the engineer working on shop drawings, for example, to rely on information provided by the engineer of record, such as loads and forces, in their calculations and designs. This is standard procedure since the shop drawing engineer is often paid a very small amount and does not know the overall design of the project. Moreover, it may be a violation of the shop drawing engineer’s code of ethics to review and/or second-guess the engineer of record’s design.
Unfortunately, the information provided by the engineer of record is not always accurate or complete. If the shop drawing engineer bases their calculations and designs on inaccurate or incomplete information, it can result in catastrophic failures such as collapse of the entire structure itself. When the shop drawing engineer’s work results in a problem or failure on the project because it was based on inaccurate or incomplete information, the engineer of record will almost certainly blame the shop drawing engineer, who will then blame the engineer of record.
The shop drawing engineer’s defense is almost always that they relied on the information provided by the engineer of record. The engineer of record’s argument is that the shop drawing engineer should have recognized certain information was omitted or inaccurate and undertaken to obtain the complete and correct information. Although there may be an industry standard allowing the shop drawing engineer to rely on information provided by the engineer of record, when the division of labor is not clearly indicated in contracts, protracted and expensive litigation is the likely result.
Accordingly, the shop drawing engineer should always have a written contract that clearly states the scope of their work. Additionally, the contract documents for the entire project (i.e., the plans, drawings, specifications, etc.) should clearly delineate the division of labor between the engineer of record and the shop drawing engineer. The contract should clarify precisely what information the shop drawing engineer is entitled to rely on so that everyone on the project is aware of the same. The shop drawing engineer’s contract is unlikely to be shared with the engineer of record. Thus, it is important to show in writing that the engineer of record was on notice of the division of labor and the shop drawing engineer’s reliance on information in the event of a claim.
Finally, if the shop drawing engineer notices that information could be missing (for example, loads are not provided for a portion of the project) and/or suspects that some of the information may be inaccurate, they should notify the engineer of record about concerns via a request for information or notes on calculations and shop drawings. Further, it is probably a good idea for the shop drawing engineer to state the information on which they relied as well as the source and limitations of that information on calculations and shop drawings even if there is no suspicion of any missing or inaccurate information.
In summary, the following proactive steps should be taken by the shop drawing engineer to reduce their risk of exposure: state the scope of the work in a written contract, delineate the division of labor, clarify what information they are entitled to rely on in the overall project contract documents, notify the engineer of record of any concerns regarding the information provided, and state the information relied on in their calculations and shop drawings. Even so, there is no guarantee that claims will not be made, but these precautions will make it very difficult for an engineer of record to blame the shop drawing engineer for relying on the information provided. Perhaps more importantly though, it should also reduce the potential for failures based on missing or inaccurate information as it will increase the chances issues will be discovered and resolved prior to construction.