Construction Failures Conference

Houston, Texas, was the site of an important conference. Titled “Construction Failures: Legal and Engineering Perspectives”, it was jointly sponsored by standing committees of the American Bar Association and the American Society of Civil Engineers.

Those participating and in attendance included an impressive array of lawyers and engineers who had been involved in major construction failure catastrophes over the last several years [Hyatt Regency Walkway; Hartford, Connecticut, Coliseum; Kemper Arena (Kansas City); Rosemont Arena (Illinois); Cocoa Beach, Florida, Condominiums; Willow Island, Virginia, Cooling Tower].

In my opinion the highlights of the meeting presented three questions: ( 1 ) whether architects and engineers are derelict in or fooling themselves by use of contract language attempting to avoid their responsibilities to see that the critical features of construction work are faithfully completed;

(2) whether industry trade standards are adequate and competently used by design professionals; and (3) whether the insurance industry will ever get smart and use understandable English in its comprehensive general liability policy form and other construction-related insurance policies.

One of the featured speakers was understood to suggest that perhaps some construction related industry groups were lowering their standards to meet the demands of competition. Representatives of several such groups strongly protested that suggestion, noting that their standard committees were not dominated by business organizations. In commenting upon the comprehensive general liability policy commonly in use today, it was suggested that the policy was neither comprehensive nor comprehensible.

A prominent engineer noted that the historical evolution of the design professional’s responsibility from “supervision” to “inspection” to “periodic observation” is tantamount to the abandonment of the professional responsibility to the owner who expects not only competent design but faithful execution of that design in the completed structure. One solution suggested was that owners be enlightened to understand that they must pay for both competent design and for on-site inspection.

Another topic which prompted conflicting viewpoints at the conference was the question of whether engineers and attorneys involved in construction failure should talk to the press. The affirmative position was taken by reporter-lawyer Ron Ostroff who reported on the Hyatt Regency walkway collapse for the Kansas City Times. He contended that by talking to reporters, knowledgeable people can assist in avoiding inaccuracies in media coverage. His more vocal opposition argued otherwise. They urged that talking to reporters is more likely to produce media reports unfavorable to them and their clients. Time did not permit a final decision on the issue.

Having design professionals and lawyers meet to discuss their common concerns and problems was an excellent idea and certainly worth repeating. Congratulations to both the American Bar Association and American Society of Civil Engineers committees and their people who were responsible for the Houston experience.

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