Engineering Law – Must an Engineer’s responsibilities be extended above its contractual responsibilities?

The concern of what the degree of the engineer’s obligations are, typically come into play when an engineered structure fails. One prominent component to this query is whether an engineer’s accountabilities stretch beyond a contractual obligation with its employer.

In Strijdom Park Extension 6 (Pty) Ltd v Abcon (Pty) Ltd this problem was raised and clarified by way of the High Court of Appeal.

History

In this particular matter the engineer was hired by Strijdom Park Extension 6 (Pty) Ltd (“the employer”) to create a steel reinforced layer of concrete splitting up the ground floor from the attic of a warehouse that was constructed by Abcon (Pty) Ltd (“the contractor”). The layer of concrete failed 2 years after occupation of the warehouse was taken.

The business instituted an insurance claim for damages to the service provider and the engineer, claiming they had breached their individual agreements with the employer. The claim against the engineer was settled, however the claim against the company was witnessed on appeal.

The parties were convinced that the collapse must-have occurred during the casting of the slab when the cement was poured over and within the network of the strengthening steel.

The dilemma that had to be decided on appeal was, for starters, whether the breakdown of the slab was at least to some extent attributable to a flawed architectural design and, subsequently, if the engineer had a obligation to the contractor.

The Court took into account the following indisputable evidence: * the failure was a result of the collapse of the upper of two criss-cross mats of steel bars that were covered in the concrete to strengthen it; * the collapse was obviously a consequence thereof that many of the stools (which kept both mats apart) were found to have been bent out of shape; * the contact between the upper mat and the stools was limited to one bar of the mat resting on the centre of the horizontal piece of each of such stools; * the stools had not been fixed; and * the stool failure happened during the casting of the slab.

The Contractor’s Argument

The Contractor, firstly, took the position that it was not liable for the destruction as it had made the concrete slab according to the engineer’s design, that had been supposedly defective.

Furthermore ,, the contractor trusted the fact the engineer had authorised the way in which the reinforcement was set up.

Last but not least, the contractor pointed out that the engineer’s design failed to reveal that there would have to be a couple of bars of the top mat per stool, nor that the stools had to be fixed.

The contractor maintained that it did not spot the failure of the upper mat, nor did it appreciate that the stools had not been tied up. It is apparent from the contractor’s proof that he left every pertinent choice regarding the putting together of the support to the engineer and the steel contractor.

The Employer’s Argument

The employer asserted that: * It was the job of the contractor to build the reinforcement mats and to build and maintain same in the right place.

* Proper construction practice demanded that, wherever possible, two bars of the top mat needs to be placed on each stool and that the feet of the stools be joined. There isn’t a reason for an engineer to indicate these techniques on his drawings because these specifications are part and parcel of proper construction procedure and solely the contractor’s responsibility.

* The contractor should have recognized the collapse throughout the pouring process and really should have discontinued the work so as to seek advice from the engineer.

* If the contractor had observed its obligations as laid out above, the disaster would not have occurred.

The Court’s Approach

The Court concurred with the employer’s position.

There was no facts corroborating the claim that the engineer’s design was flawed. Although the engineer had accredited the steel structure on location, he didn’t have a obligation to supervise the job of the contractor. It was the contractor’s choice the way it performed the development job and it can’t shift the blame to the engineer in the position where it didn’t perform its work in a proper and workmanlike fashion. It was also the contractor’s obligation to ensure that the construction of a design is free of defects.

In the Court’s viewpoint, it was acceptable of the engineer to expect that the contractor would make sure proper assembly of the reinforcement mat by observing any displacement and taking proper action if it occurred.

The Court additionally clarified that the engineer had simply a contractual obligation to the customer and not towards the contractor. The engineer didn’t actually have a responsibility to get involved if the contractor appear to be going wrong (unless it was obvious to the engineer that the contractor didn’t know his business and would definitely get it wrong). Such an obligation to get involved would only occur should the contractor seem to be set on an remarkable act of carelessness.

The Court therefore held that the slab had broken because the contractor failed to execute the development in a correct and workmanlike manner.

Final result

* An engineer’s responsibilities are not prolonged outside of what is set out as part of his contract with his employer.

* An engineer will therefore not have the obligation to watch over the task of a contractor, unless he is contractually required to do so and he cannot be held accountable for a third party’s contractual infringement.

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