Design Error and the Spearin Doctrine (Law note)

engineering plansDesign Error.  Two words that strike fear into the heart of any architect, engineer, or lawyer representing them.  Today’s post discussion is to discuss the different obligations of each of the parties on a construction project relating to design errors.

As discussed last week, designers have an obligation to design in accordance with a reasonable standard of care.  That does not mean that the plans and specifications are perfect, however.

While the contractor is not responsible for design errors, he does have a duty to report any design errors or omissions which he discovers during his review of the plans.  If he discovers any design errors, he must report them to the owner.  See, for example, AIA A201 3-2.2.

As we have also discussed, an owner also impliedly warrants the adequacy of the plans and specifications .  This is sometimes known as the “Spearin Doctrine,” after the seminal Supreme Court  case, US. v. Spearin, 248 U.S. 132 (1918).   In Spearin, a contractor sought to recover from the government for the government’s failure to provide accurate plans reflecting the overflow issues which preexisted at the Brooklyn Navy Yard,   The Court held:

[I]f the contractor is bound to build according to plans and specifications prepared by the owner, the contractor will not be
responsible for the consequences of defects in the plans and specifications, (Citations omitted). This responsibility of the owner is
not overcome by the usual clauses requiring builders to visit the site, to check the plans, and to inform themselves of the requirements of the
work. The duty to check plans did not impose the obligation to pass upon their adequacy to accomplish the purpose in view.

Id. at 136-137. The Spearin Doctrine has been faithfully followed in the North Carolina courts. See, e.g., City of Charlotte v. Skidmore, Owings and Merrill, 103 N.C, App. 667, 407 S.E.2d 571 (1991); Burke Co Public School Bd of Education v Juno Construction Corp, 50 N.C App. 238, 273 S.E,2d 504 (1981).

One state court held, “[i]t is simply unfair to bar recovery to contractors who are mislead by inaccurate plans and submit bids lower than they might otherwise have submitted.” Battle Ridge Companies v. North Carolina Dept. of Transportation, 161 N.C. App. 156, 160, 587 S.E.2d 426 (2003), quoting Lowder v. Highway Comm., 26 N.C, App, 622, 638, 217 S.E.2d 682, 692, cert denied, 288 N.C. 393, 218 S.E.2d 467 (1975).

Obviously, the architect or engineer is the ultimate party responsible for design errors, but all parties play a role in identifying and minimizing the effect of such errors through prompt notification.


Photo “pipes” by moonlight on celluloid via Flickr via Attribution-Noncommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 License.

Implied Warranties on Construction Projects

warrantyA contractor client asked me to explain to him what it meant when someone told him that he had given implied warranties to an owner.  This is an excellent question.

Implied warranties are warranties that the law presumes you have given to the other party.  Even if you never make any written warranty or guaranty, North Carolina courts will often find that you are still liable for certain warranties unless  you explicitly disclaim them.

The warranties that are generally implied in construction contracts include:


  • Warranty of Merchantability


  • Warranty of Fitness for a Particular Purpose


  • Warranty of Habitability (residential construction only)


  • Warranty of Plans and Specifications


  • Warranty of Workmanship


  • Warranty to not delay or hinder any other parties on the Project



What do these warranties mean?  Essentially, they all mean the same thing:  that your product or labor is at least acceptable.  It may not be perfect—but it meets certain minimum expectations.

Disclaimable Warranties

Warranty of Merchantability—Under the Uniform Commercial Code, this warranty states that the merchant or supplier of a  product delivered to the buyer warrant that the product is able to be used as intended.

Warranty of Fitness for a Particular Purpose—This warranty, also under the Uniform Commercial Code, states that a product will be able to be used for a specific purpose which the buyer has told you about.  It is usually less of an issue that merchantability—however, if a buyer tells you of an unusual need that he is expects the product you supply to him will meet, it can come into play.

Both of these warranties can be disclaimed—that is, you can assert that you are making no such warranties in your written contract or purchase order form.  Certain requirements apply to make a disclaimer valid, so check with legal counsel.

Nondisclaimable Warranties

The remaining warranties—Habitability, Plans and Specifications, Workmanship, and Not to Hinder or Delay—are warranties that, in general, cannot be disclaimed.

Warranty of Habitability– The contractor for new residential construction owes a duty to build a house (and related fixtures) such that it can be lived in for normal residential purposes.  This duty extends to both the original purchaser and subsequent purchasers, so long as statute of limitation and repose are met.

Warranty of Plans and Specifications–The owner impliedly warrants to the contractor that the plans and specifications provided to the contractor are adequate.  This is also called the “Spearin doctrine.”

Warranty of Workmanship—Every contractor impliedly warrants that his construction will be built in a workmanlike manner and sufficiently free of major defects.  This implied warranty is sometimes made express in written contracts—such as in AIA A201 3.5.1.

Warranty to Not Delay or Hinder—This warranty is owed by each contractor to his subcontractors, prime contractors to one another, and the owner to the contractor.

If a warranty is breached, the other party has a claim for breach of the implied warranty at issue.

  Question Mark Have a question about implied warranties?  Shoot me an email at mbrumback @rl-law dot com.


Photo “Warranted/Day 70” by Aaron Goselin via Flikr made available via an Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 3.0 License.