Orange County Branch Newsletter
Law and CE
Law and CE - Should I Sign and Stamp These Plans?
From Sumerian tablets dating back to the 31st century, to the digital signatures used prevalently in today’s information age, stamping and signing documents has undergone a revolution over the last 5,000 years. Not everyone will have a signature that remains as timeless and symbolic as John Hancock’s when he signed the Declaration of Independence. However, just as the signatures that appeared on that historic document, an engineer’s stamp has a legal and binding effect that cannot be taken lightly. So while your professional signature may not be the foundation that forges a new nation, it does possess an important significance in the design process that carries with it a legal responsibility.
Today, one’s signature is an important – and sometimes required – aspect of the practice of civil engineering. California Business & Professions Code § 6735(a) mandates (with limited exceptions) that “[a]ll civil engineering plans and specifications that are permitted or that are to be released for construction shall bear the signature and seal or stamp of the licensee and the date of signing and sealing or stamping.”
By affixing an engineer’s stamp and signing plans, specifications, calculations or reports, an engineer is telling the world that he or she was in “responsible charge of the work.” Section 6703 of the Professional Engineers Act defines this to mean “the independent control and direction, by the use of initiative, skill, and independent judgment, of the investigation or design of professional engineering work or the direct engineering control of the project.” So what does this mean when problems on projects turn into lawsuits?
In lawsuits alleging negligence in engineering, accountability is the name of the game. Indeed, the existence or non-existence of a signature may end up being a critical factor in terms of determining an engineer’s liability. However, the same statute that bestows accountability upon one who signs civil engineering documents also provides protection from damages caused by subsequent changes to or uses of those documents, provided that such change or use was not approved or authorized by the engineer who originally signed the documents. (Bus. & Prof. § 6735(b).) Thus, it is important for engineers to be cognizant when “signing off” on documents that could alter the design. Of particular concern are shop drawings and other submittals, since what can be perceived as the engineer’s “approval” (whether intentional or not) of a shop drawing or submittal that does not conform to the original design could have an altering effect on the engineer’s ultimate liability.
Your signature carries great responsibility, but it is also worth mentioning that this responsibility is not all encompassing. While a civil engineer is accountable for the documents he or she signs, the signature generally does not impose a duty or responsibility for supervision of the actual construction of the work that is the subject of those documents. (Bus. & Prof. § 6735.1.) However, you must be careful to fully examine your contractual responsibilities on each project in which you serve as the engineer of record to be sure that you are not contractually obligated to provide more, including supervision and/or inspection services, than you are statutorily obligated to provide.
So the next time you place your signature on a construction document, please take a minute to reflect on what it means. We encourage you to be aware of the potential accountability it creates and to embrace the protection it affords.
Nothing contained within this article should be considered the rendering of legal advice. Anyone who reads this article should always consult with an attorney before acting on anything contained in this or any other article on legal matters, as facts and circumstances will vary from case to case.