Search Results for: standard of care

Standard of Care for Engineers- the Jury Instruction (law note)

Not perfection I’ve previously talked about the standard of care for design professionals on construction projects. 

As you should be aware, the standard is reasonableness, not perfection.  To illustrate the point, consider a standard North Carolina jury instruction on the standard of care for engineers:

 “Under our law, a professional engineer is required to exercise that degree of care which a professional engineer of ordinary skill and prudence would exercise under the same or similar circumstances, and if the engineer fails to exercise such degree of ordinary skill and prudence under the same or similar circumstances, the engineer’s conduct would be negligence.”

For an architect, just substitute the word “architect” for “engineer” in the jury instruction above.    Sometimes it can be challenging to meet a client’s expectations, and some clients believe that plans should (and can) be perfect.  In your discussions about the project with the client, be sure the client has reasonable expectations.  It is not reasonable to expect perfection in design plans.  Unforeseen conditions, changing criteria, and differing code inspector interpretations are all to be expected.  Educate your client about typical errors & omissions at the start of the construction project.
 
Do you have a question about the standard of care?  Drop me an email at mbrumback@rl-law.com.  Be sure to sign up for email delivery of blog posts directly to your inbox so you never miss a post!
 

The Architect’s and Engineer’s “Standard of Care” (Law note)

drawing architectural plans

Architects and engineers are required to meet the appropriate standard of care for their work on a construction project.   Such a simple phrase is actually a very loaded statement.  What, exactly, is the “standard of care” that the design professional is required to meet?  This is one of the “terms of art” that lawyers love and everyone else tends to hate.

Basically, the “standard of care” is a shorthand description that states the designer owes a duty to perform reasonably well on the project.  How is “reasonably well” defined?  It is not perfection.  It is, however, the showing of “reasonable care” and performing the “level of skill and diligence those in engaged in the same profession would ordinarily exercise under similar circumstances.”  Again, what?  If you are an architect practicing in, for example, Raleigh, you will be presumed to:

1.  possess the required degree of learning, skills, and experience that is ordinarily possessed by similarly situated professionals in the community (that is, perform as well as other architects practicing in the Raleigh area);

2. use reasonable and ordinary care and diligence in the exercise of your skill to accomplish your professional tasks; and

3. use your best good professional judgment in performing your professional tasks.

Notice that nowhere did I say that the architect’s plans had to be perfect.  However, the plans do need to meet a “typical” standard.  They must meet the applicable Codes.  They must generally be sound.  But they do not have to be perfect.  (Question: Is there ever a perfect set of plans?).

Courts in North Carolina have spent a lot of time, and a lot of ink, discussing the deceptively simple concept of “standard of care,” but essentially this is how it is defined.  If you want to read caselaw discussing the standard, a good case is RCDI Const. Inc. v. Spaceplan/Architecture, Planning, & Interiors, PA., 148 F. Supp. 2d 607 (W.D.N.C. 2001).

Note for Contractors & Subcontractors

If you are not a licensed professional, are you off the hook?  No.  But your duties fall under the “implied duty of workmanship“.  Essentially, you have a duty to make sure your work is sufficiently free from defects such that it meets the requirements of the Contract documents.

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Photo Drawing up the plans (Doors & Windows) by Sailing “Footprints: Real to Reel” (Ronn ashore) via Flickr and made available via an Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 2.0 license.

 

“Professional Best Efforts” part 2– Reservation of Rights for Engineers who agree to “best” efforts? (law note)

reservedRecently, a reader reached out to me to ask about case examples of an engineer losing his insurance coverage because he agreed to a “heightened” or “best” standard of care. The reader stated that he was an insurance adviser who handled various construction professional coverages, and that in his experience it was very unusual to deny or limit damages because of a heightened standard of care.

This comment led me to an informal survey of several insurance brokers that I deal with, and the general consensus is that instead of outright denying a claim, most E&O insurers will issue a “reservation of rights” letter. What that means is that the insurance company will defend the claim (i.e., pay for your lawyer to defend you and your Firm), but with the understanding that they are (potentially) denying any liability for any adverse money judgment against you.

Inevitably, most such cases settle, but if they do not, the question then is whether the heightened duty created part of the damages. The insurer may ask to intervene in the lawsuit to ask the jury that question, in an effort to limit its share of the damages.

The reader commented that he could see two related insurance limitations: (1) where the professional agreed to be liable, and (2) where the professional refused to consent to settle a claim. In such cases, many policies contain a “hammer clause” which limits the insurer’s liability and defense costs to that which would have resulted had the insured accepted the settlement.

While these are interesting fact situations to the insurance and/or law geeks among us, for those of you who would rather spend your days designing and engineering instead of in court,  the best practice still remains the same:  avoid agreeing to the highest professional standards. Being the “test case” for a novel legal issue is not in your best interest.

Thoughts? Comments? Experiences in such situations? Share in the comment section or drop me an email.

Agree to use your “professional best” ? You may lose insurance coverage! (law note)

mistakesYesterday, I was part of a panel at the NC Bar Association Construction Law Winter Meeting, discussing insurance issues for design professionals.

One topic we touched on was how to avoid invalidating your insurance.  As most of you know, Errors & Omissions insurance (“E&O” coverage)  is meant to provide coverage for mistakes you may make in performing your professional architecture or engineering services.  E&O coverage is important to protect you in the event of a lawsuit because, as you know, no set of plans is perfect (nor is perfection the standard of care).

Be careful, though.  Do not promise to provide a higher standard of care than the “professional standard“.

If you are asked to sign a contract that states you will use your “professional best,” “best efforts”, “highest care” or similar, you are being asked to sign something that could cost you your E&O coverage.

Examples of such language:

[Architect] [Engineer] shall perform the Services in accordance with the highest standards of professional competence in the industry.

[Architect] [Engineer] shall exercise a high degree of care and diligence in providing the professional services.

Architect’s] [Engineer’s] services shall be of first class quality and free from defects.

E&O policies cover you for failing to meet professional standards, but not in cases where you agree by contract to provide a higher/better/best standard. 

Explain the risks in such language to your owner clients.  No owner will want to put your insurance policy in jeopardy, and they should be willing to strike or modify that language to ensure that your work on the construction project is fully protected and covered by your E&O policy.

Some examples of coverable standards:

All services to be performed shall be performed in a manner consistent with that level of care and skill ordinarily exercised by members of Designer’s profession.

All services shall be performed in a manner consistent with that level of care and skill ordinarily exercised by members of Designer’s profession currently practicing in the location of the project for which the services are rendered, or similar locations.

Remember this, and make sure your future construction contracts contain favorable language that will actually be insurable.  You know– the whole reason you have professional liability insurance in the first place!

Have you ever been asked to agree to provide your best efforts?  How did you handle the situation?  Share in the space below.

For Engineers & Architects: Top 10 Construction Law in NC Blog Posts

top10Since I have so many newer readers here at Construction Law NC, I thought a brief summary of some of the most popular posts might be helpful.  (I have also added this list to the About Me & Contact Info page, in case you want to refer to it later).

Presented below are the top 10 posts by popularity (although the list does fluctuate some):

  1. “Substantial Completion” on the Construction Project: How is it defined?  (always a popular post; owners want every last paint scratch fixed before they are willing to consider the project complete)
  2. The Sticky Statute of Limitations in NC  (the general rule: 3 years from date of service; however, there are many exceptions)
  3. Statute of Repose: Putting your Risk to Bed  (after 6 years, in North Carolina, even the exceptions to statutes of limitations don’t help)
  4. Planning Ahead for Additional Compensation  (money; cause, we all need to get paid!)
  5. Spring Cleaning: 6 Contract law tips for limiting risk on construction projects  (contracts are the first step in limiting your risk- read here to learn how to make them effective)
  6. How to Smartly Handle Project Documents  (your policies and procedures with documents can make or break a lawsuit)
  7. The Architect’s and Engineer’s “Standard of Care”  (note: perfection is NOT the standard!)
  8. Design Error and the Spearin Doctrine (why your designs must actually, you know, work!)
  9. Active vs. Passive Negligence (sharing the blame, unequally, when something goes wrong)
  10. Adding an “Additional Insured” in the Professional Services Agreement: an exercise in futility!  (for those times when you have an obtuse owner- show them this!)

Are there other posts that you think should be added to this “Best of” collection?  Wish I had written a post on your pet topic?  Share below.

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