March 2019 – Law and Civil Engineering

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Practice Tips
by Eugene Bass

As everyone can appreciate, an engineer must seek to practice the profession in a non negligent manner and to stay out of litigation. Failure to do so will subject the engineer to financial liability, not to mention damage to profession reputation. Even when driven by purely monetary considerations, mistakes are not good. Besides the cost of correcting the mistake and paying for the damages that the mistake caused, there will be the continuing financial consequence of increased insurance premiums, if insurance can be obtained, as well as the costs in terms of lost business arising out of the damage to reputation. In addition, there will be lawyers to pay. So, the engineer would do well to become aware of areas where risks of professional liability have occurred for others and to seek to conduct business in ways that avoid or at least minimize those risks. Following in this article and in future articles are a few areas that come to mind.

Always seek to conform to the professional standard of care. Everyone knows this and has a pretty good concept of what it is. It used to be defined in more local terms but with modern communications, the old “local” has become world wide. It is therefore important to be aware of the latest developments in the profession and what is being currently defined as encompassed within the “standard of care.” Just remember that “you get what you paid for” does not trump “standard of care.” This can be a difficult concept to work around where a client may not want to or be able to pay for the engineering of a project that will comply with the standard of care. Budgetary induced short cuts may see a project to a conclusion but the result may be a disaster waiting to happen. Even if the project limitations and increased risks are fully explained to the client, that will probably still not prevent legal consequences from befalling the engineer whose only defense may be “…but I told you so…” Hard decisions must be made and projects may have to be turned down if there is insufficient money to be sure that the engineer will be able to produce a project that does conform with the standard of case. Not a good place to be in these times.

Seek to have good communications with clients. Where a client’s expectations are not met, an atmosphere can develop that can lead to an unhappy client who will not enhance the engineer’s reputation or prospects for future work, not to mention, increase the likelihood of litigation. Unmet expectations can easily be the result of bad communication. Starting with the contract and even before the formal terms are set down, it must be clearly understood by both parties what is to be expected of the other. For the engineer, this can present special challenges in dealing with an owner who does not have an accurate understanding of what an engineer does. The engineer must seek to learn what the client knows and understands and tailor the communication accordingly. Careful documentation along the process is also a good practice to be sure the client understands and maintains only realistic expectations.

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