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Scaffolding collapse

Men in Hard Hats on a Building Site Discuss a Blueprint

The language in standard contracts can help manage risks for design professionals.

Three employees of a contractor were injured when scaffolding failed under the weight of a concrete slab that was being poured. The injured workers, unable to sue the contractor because of workers’ compensation protections, filed suit against the owner, architect, and engineer. The suit against the owner was dismissed because the owner had surrendered the property to the contractor. From that point on, the contractor alone was responsible for protecting its employees in that jurisdiction.

The engineer that designed the scaffolding was dismissed because the court found that the engineer’s design was not the cause of the collapse. Interestingly, the engineer’s design was impossible to build, but the contractor, rather than asking for clarification, used its own design to splice supporting posts without the knowledge of the engineer. Consequently, even though the engineer’s design was inadequate, it did not cause the accident.

The architect was dismissed because the unambiguous language of AIA document B141 stated that the architect was not responsible for construction methods or safety precautions in connection with the work and nothing in the contract made the architect responsible for ensuring that the engineer’s scaffolding design was adequate. In addition, because the contract documents did not include any drawings or specifications related to the scaffolding, the architect’s contractual obligation to “visit the site at intervals appropriate…to determine that the Work when completed will be in accordance with the Contract Documents” did not create a duty to inspect the scaffolding.

The court also pointed out that the duty to “reject” non-conforming work in the AIA document not create a special duty to stop the work. Only the owner has the authority to stop work on a project under the AIA documents.

There are many lessons to be learned from this case. The most important is the value of using contract language similar to that found in AIA documents. This case also illustrated the important difference between site visits and inspections, and the importance of assigning responsibilities such as site safety to the party who is in the best position to control or manage the site.

Remember that laws differ from one jurisdiction to another. This case occurred in Mississippi. There may have been different results had this case been tried in a different jurisdiction.

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