Orange County Branch Newsletter
Law and Civil Engineering
A Design That Failed to Avoid Foreseeable Damage
A County in Arizona hired an engineer to design a bridge to cross a river. Plans were prepared and approved by the County. The design criteria set by the County required that the bridge and the approaches withstand a 25-year flood. In addition to the bridge and approaches, the design included construction of dikes at the edge of the river upstream of the bridge for a distance of about 250 feet. The dikes and approaches to the bridge were not designed with any means for draining of water trapped behind the dikes and upstream of the approaches. As a result, water would pond behind the dikes and upstream of the bridge approaches until it reached a level to overflow either the dike or the approach.
A highway ran parallel to the river and the owner of the property between the river and the highway had built a grocery store and real estate office on their land. The improvements were located within the 50 year flood plain but above the 25-year level. The grocery store and real estate office would be flooded to a depth of two feet before water trapped by the dike and approach road would be relieved by running around the dike or over the bridge approach road.
A 100-year flood occurred and water was trapped by the dike and approach road, eventually flooding and destroying the store and real estate office. The bridge remained above the water level and suffered no damage. The property owner sued the engineer and other parties.
The engineer argued that since his contract with the County for design of the bridge and approaches only required a 25 year flood, that he was not responsible for damages that occurred due to a 100-year flood. The Court disagreed that this would insulate the engineer from liability, stating that the “followed the plans” defense was applicable to contractors but not engineers.
The Court found that there was a difference in the contractual liability of an engineer to design a bridge to withstand a flood of 25-years or more and the responsibility of an engineer to design a bridge and its approaches so that in the foreseeable future flood water will not damage third parties. From the evidence, the Court noted that it was foreseeable that without culverts under the approaches to the bridge, there was reasonable probability that plaintiffs' property would be flooded. The County concluded that the engineer was negligent in failing to design adequate dikes and culverts for the project and that this negligence was the proximate cause of plaintiffs' damage.