By Attorney Edward Jesson
This week’s article deals with the responsibilities that contractors have with regards to the actual design of the building, which necessarily includes the building’s structural system. Generally, the contractor responsible for building the project, be it new construction or otherwise, is not responsible for the design aspects of the project unless we are talking about a design-build project. The design aspects will usually fall to a “design team,” often comprising of some combination of architects and engineers. Or, more often in the residential setting, the owner will provide plans and specifications to the contractor.
The following problem has come up time and time again: a general contractor finishes work on a project, built perfectly to the plans and specifications, only to find out that the plans and specifications were defective in some way, which has then caused issues with the final project (at the extreme end, these issues could be structural, rendering the completed project unfit for purpose). Invariably, on discovery that the project has some serious issues, the project’s owner will first turn to the general contractor to “fix it.” Of course, if “fixing it” involves starting from scratch, neither the owner nor the contractor wants to come out of pocket to pay for that.
Legally speaking, the courts throughout the United States have created a doctrine whereby the project owner impliedly warrants that the information, plans, and specifications that an owner provides to the general contractor are fit for purpose. In a residential setting, even if the owner used a design team, if the owner provided plans and specifications to the contractor, this doctrine would likely still apply. This doctrine is known as the Spearin Doctrine and arises from the case United States v. Spearin, which was argued in the United States Supreme Court in 1918.
What this essentially means is that, so long as the contractor complies with the plans and specifications supplied to it by the project owner, the contractor cannot be held legally responsible for structural defects if those plans and specifications are not adequate for the specific project. Contrast this, for example, with a design-build project, where the contractor or its consultants are partially responsible for the design aspect of the project, and you can see how Spearin would likely be inapplicable to those circumstances.
There are, of course, exceptions to this general rule. For example, if there is an express term contained in a contract that the contractor is responsible for any design defects, then it is likely that a contractor in that situation could be held legally responsible. Another exception is that of “reasonable reliance,” which means that if a design defect is so glaringly obvious that it could not be missed, a contractor would not then be able to later claim that they relied on the plans in order to avoid liability.
While generally not directly responsible for the design of structural systems (or, indeed, other areas of a project), that does not mean that a contractor cannot be held liable for deficiencies in the design. The best protection against issues such as the ones presented in this article are written contracts in place between all parties to a construction project, including the design team, and not just between the owner and general contractor.
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