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Claims corner: what causes claims against land surveyors?

In Schinnerer’s land surveyors program, houses and townhouses are the project type with the most claims in terms of frequency (35.8%) and severity (33.3%), followed closely by land and site development (30.6% frequency / 26.9% severity).

land-surveyor-project-type-claims-ask-vic

The problem areas (those areas that cause claims during the course of the surveyor providing professional services) that create the most claims for surveyors and result in the highest indemnity payments are caused by boundaries, easements, and trespass (42.5% frequency / 41.7% severity).

land-surveyor-problem-area-claims-ask-vic

So how do surveyors navigate projects successfully to help avoid claims?

Have a Written Contract

Contracts are arguably the most important risk management tool at a surveyor’s disposal. Contracts should be memorialized in a written document. Close to half of the claims brought against surveyors in the Schinnerer program (43.5%) involved oral agreements. Oral agreements not only lead to disputes, unmet expectations, and claims, they also make defending a claim difficult.

When developing a written contract, be on the lookout for contractual provisions that could increase a firm’s liability exposure by:

  • raising the standard of care beyond the common law standard;
  • lacking a clear scope of services;
  • requiring the surveyor to warrant or guarantee services; or
  • having insurance requirements that are beyond the scope of professional liability coverage.

Evaluate the Client

Perhaps the most important step in assessing potential risk on any project is to evaluate the client since almost two-thirds of claims against surveyors in the Schinnerer program originate from the client (64.3%). Surveying firms need to be thorough in their evaluation of whoever retains them for professional services, whether that’s the project owner, general contractor, or another design professional. Some critical questions that need to be answered include:

  • is this a repeat client with whom the surveyor has established a rapport?
  • is the client financially competent?
  • does the client have clear project objectives and realistic expectations?
  • does the client have experience with the project type?
  • what is the client’s claims history on other projects?

Have a Quality Control Plan

Projects are the most successful when there is a well-developed quality control plan in place. Surveyor firms should develop goals for the quality of the services they render, both overall and on a project-by-project basis. Quality control procedures can help manage risk by identifying problems or discrepancies in the surveyor’s services before construction begins. Discovery after construction begins can be extremely costly to fix. Possible quality control procedures might include avoiding reliance on old documents and conducting internal or external peer reviews to help catch errors early.

Document Projects Carefully

Failure to properly document discussions, decisions, and instructions throughout a project is prevalent in many claims. Many surveyors fail to appreciate the importance of having an established practice of documenting the normal course of a project. Most defense attorneys agree that the availability of project records greatly increases the ability to successfully defend claims. It’s essential to establish and enforce procedures for documenting discussions, circumstances, and events as they occur, and have a systematic, objective documentation process in place to document all relevant activity.

Negotiate Appropriate Fees

Lastly, the establishment and receipt of proper fees for surveying services is critical in evaluating potential risks for a project. When surveyors do not receive appropriate fees necessary to provide surveying services, the temptation may be to minimize the time spent on certain aspects to control costs. Inadequate fees for services ultimately go against the client’s interest for a successful project. Because projects may change during the course of providing services, the surveyor must have contractual language that allows for the charging of additional fees for a change in or addition to services.

For more information on claims against land surveyors, review our claim study “Mapping Out Land Surveyor Claims” or our in-depth publication on surveyor risks, Staking Out Your Future: Schinnerer’s Guide to Managing Professional Liability Exposure.

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