Who’s at Fault?

A recent front page newspaper story discussed a commencement address by a local geotechnical engineer at Colorado State University.

The engineer is quoted to have voiced his complaints that “attorneys and insurance companies are doing a thriving business at the expense of private enterprise.” He is said to have expressed alarm over the increasing number of suits against engineers, the costs of processing suits and the proportion of California attorneys to its population.

The article does not mention the fact that this same engineer was largely instrumental in convincing the Colorado General Assembly to enact the wise law permitting recovery of attorney’s fees in cases where claims or defenses asserted were frivolous or groundless.

That, however, represents only one side of the story!

Many owners engage design professionals and contractors expecting that the result of their paid designers’ efforts will be structurally sound buildings which will withstand the effects of the soil conditions and the environment in which they are built. The same owners are entitled to expect that should their buildings begin to crack and show signs of structural distress they will have recourse against those whose efforts had failed to produce sound and stable construction.

When structural defects do occur, responsible design professionals must address the problems responsibly and in a sincere effort to remedy the deficiencies. Those who fail should expect to be sued and to bear the burdens involved-not the owner, who certainly did not contract for a broken building.

If design professionals fail in their responsibilities, where else can the owner go but to attorneys and ultimately the courts? Thank God for both!

The questions are not whether there are too many attorneys or too many lawsuits: The questions are (1) whether the professional people in our society (including engineers and attorneys) are meeting their responsibilities; and (2) whether the volume of engineering mistakes is on the increase.

Attorneys who file frivolous or groundless lawsuits deserve condemnation. Engineers whose services fail to produce structurally and functionally sound construction deserve the same measure of condemnation, no less. One of the very basic principles of our democracy is that courts remain open to consideration of honest disputes. Legal liability is frequently no more scientifically exact than certain failure probabilities in the engineering discipline.

Professionally responsible attorneys file suits seeking to have the disputes involved decided by neutral third parties.

This column recently reviewed a contemporary practice of some engineers “going naked” by failing to carry insurance protecting them and their clients from sometimes sizeable damages resulting from design errors and omissions. Question: Is that responsible?

The complaints voiced by the engineer mentioned above suggest that perhaps, at least on a local basis, a joint committee of lawyers and engineers should be established to promote better communications and understanding among the two professional groups as well as greater sensitivity to the responsibilities each assumes to their respective clients.

Neither lawyers nor engineers deserve wholesale condemnation simply because lawsuit volume against engineers in increasing. If the engineer’s public comments were intended otherwise, he should reconsider.

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