Orange County Branch Newsletter

February 2015


ASCE OC The Legal Side of Engineering, Part 2

The legal side of engineering is not something usually talked about. Instead, most people think of engineering as highly technical field. But although the latter is true, the legal aspects of engineering are just as important as the technical. Engineering students and young professionals learn topics like hydrology, transportation, planning and so on. What to do in the court of law, on the other hand, isn’t typically covered. The fact of the matter is that Architecture, Engineering, and Construction companies (AEC) all face the possibility of litigation regarding their designs and services. But, by understanding how legal contracts and obligations collaborate with engineering services, professionals can engage in good record keeping and conduct. Doing so can help them prepare for different legal issues that might arise- and often prevent certain issues from occurring in the first place.

On the evening of November 18th, 2014, ASCE OC YMF joined Mich­ael L. Wroniak, Esq. and Christian E. Bredeson, Esq. at their office Collins Muir + Stewart, LLP for “The Legal Side of Engineering: Part 2.” Michael and Christian have over 10 years of experience from their trial practice, general litigation, and private representation for the AEC industry. With an audience of 30 engineering professionals, this event was a follow up to the initial seminar that took place in June 2013, regarding the basics of legal issues in engineering. In this follow-up seminar, the focus was on the legal aspects of construction phase services.

Michael and Christian explained that while documentation can track project progress, it more importantly defines the responsibilities of the engineer. Contract documents include, but are not limited to: plans, e-mail correspondence, meeting minutes, and anything else related to the development of the project. Creating meaningful and organized documentation is an important skill.  But engineers must also familiarize themselves with the documents other parties produce. The collection of all parties’ documents is what dictates the scope of work, whose responsibility it is, and the “standard of care.” The “standard of care” is an important legal concept that determines the acceptable quality types of services to be rendered. After an explanation of the importance of contract documents, schedule issues and submittal complications were discussed. Schedule delays in a project are unfortunate, and sometimes unavoidable. When a project has a delay, proper documentation becomes a key ingredient in determining the causes of delay and protecting consultants or contractors. Coordination is also an area where documentation assists in outlining the responsibilities and requirements of work for all parties.

The final topics discussed at the seminar were project site conduct and construction phase services. Whether an engineer is tasked with inspection, note-taking, or management all depends on the scope of work. But scope of work is only part of the story. As mentioned before, the “standard of care” then comes into play. Rarely is design perfect after the first attempt (hence the need for deltas), and occasionally construction must be redone or revaluated mid-project. The standard of care identifies the acceptable- it dictates what level of competence is standard based on industry norms. For example, engineers are not faulted for plan check comments because it is accepted that the basic standard of care of a diligent engineer will might need a reasonable number of revisions. And while going above the standard of care would seem like a proactive move, it can usually increase liability.[K2]  For example, a project engineer going for a site walk but then deciding to help coordinate a demolition on the project site creates issues. Although the engineer is trying to help, the risk of involving themselves outside their scope and care puts them in liability if something were to go wrong.

“What is more powerful in court- project files, or live testimony?” asked one of the attorneys while scanning the crowd. Hands went up to contribute ideas and the professionals chattered until an answer was given. “Documentation!” the attorneys proclaimed, concluding the seminar with the biggest buzzword of the night. Michael and Christian’s interactive personalities, light-hearted humor, and energetic presence, both informed and entertained the audience. And while the legal side of engineering is less discussed, the conversation still needs to be had. How important documentation is to protect oneself and how to determine and meet the standards of care is indispensable knowledge for the advancing professional. ASCE OC YMF is appreciative to Collins Collins Muir + Stewart, LLP for holding the event at their office, and to Mich­ael L. Wroniak, Esq. and Christian E. Bredeson, Esq for an excellent seminar.


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