Why architects and engineers face negligence lawsuits

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The career of a well-established architect or engineer can end with a single lawsuit. Learn how leveraging additional project reviews and maintaining good communication can help avoid a devastating negligence, also called malpractice, claim.
Architects and engineers closely examining a project plan.

When you work in building design, a simple mistake can have dire consequences.

It’s a risk faced by many design professionals, such as engineers who are responsible for a building’s design and safety, and architects who work on large-scale construction projects.

Even if a mistake isn’t your fault, a malpractice claim, also called a negligence claim, can cost a fortune and stain the reputation of your professional services firm.

That’s why it’s better to just avoid malpractice cases to begin with. Here are a few reasons why engineers and architects face professional malpractice lawsuits, and how to avoid them.

1. A client claims you made a mistake

Though you might expect mistakes to happen more frequently on complex projects, that's not always the case. If an error or oversight costs your client money, you can expect a lawsuit.

Before you argue that you’re always careful about your work, consider the number of calculations your engineering firm makes on just one project. Multiply that by your number of clients and you’ll see how vulnerable you are to making a mistake.

That’s why architect and engineer liability insurance is essential — but it's better to stay out of court entirely. To help avoid mistakes, check your math. If you can, ask a colleague to review your projects and calculations.

This may add to your timeline and budget, but it's well worth it when considering the alternative.

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2. A client accuses you of architect or engineer negligence

If you ignore complaints from a client, don't be surprised if a negligence lawsuit follows.

Communication is key. A client who doesn't understand why a project is off-track, over budget, or delayed is more likely to sue than one kept informed of changes and issues as they happen.

Architecture and engineering practices don't operate in a vacuum. Your clients expect your business to meet a standard of care (or duty of care), which means the reasonable care that would be expected of any professional in your industry.

The standard of care for engineers and architects means avoiding physical harm (also called personal injury) and property damage. It also includes proper project oversight, meeting the project's exact specifications, and inspection and documentation throughout.

Architect or engineering negligence examples

If you fall short of expectations, a client may accuse you of architect and engineer negligence. This is also known as architect or engineering malpractice. A professional negligence lawsuit may involve:

  • Failure to meet the standard of care
  • Breach of contract
  • Missed deadlines or cost overruns

3. A client claims that you were late on a project

Pay special attention to budget overruns, project delays, and other issues that could lead to a financial loss for your clients.

Before you even begin a project, it’s critical that both you and your clients understand the costs, timeline, and scope of the project. Clear expectations and open communications can reduce your lawsuit risks.

The best way to make sure everyone is on the same page from the start is with a detailed client contract, as well as including a “limitation of liability” clause to further protect yourself.

You may want to have an attorney help you develop a standard project contract. Some engineers and architects even have attorneys review the terms of every new contract.

Beyond setting expectations, you also need to keep your clients in the loop. If your clients don't hear anything to the contrary, they'll expect your project to be on track and on budget. Make them aware of any problems you encounter and all steps you’re taking to fix them.

If a client complains, asks numerous questions or voices concerns to address them promptly. Confrontation isn’t fun, and you may find yourself taking the blame, but your clients will appreciate directness and honesty.

Whenever possible, document your company's communication with your clients. This includes issues they bring up and how you attempt to resolve them. Suing for engineering negligence is harder if you can show the court your responsiveness and the steps you've taken.

4. Too many clients or projects create client dissatisfaction

If you try to take on too much, you're at a greater risk for lawsuits from dissatisfied clients.

Keep your list of active clients manageable to ensure you don’t over commit and under deliver. You need the time and attention to properly draw up contracts, communicate with your clients, and incorporate a review process. These are essential to meeting your standard of care.

Try to develop a support network to review work and act as a security net to prevent errors or omissions. If you can afford outside help, consider hiring an independent consultant to review your designs prior to completion.

If you opt for an independent contractor, be sure they’re properly vetted or insured. The last thing you want is for outside help to create new risks.

Be sure to check their certificate of liability insurance before you hire them. It should show they carry both professional liability and general liability insurance to protect against legal liability.

You can reduce the risks of a lawsuit, but you can’t eliminate them. To make sure legal action doesn’t jeopardize your company, you need the right professional liability insurance coverage to safeguard your investment and keep your business up and running.

How to protect your company from professional malpractice lawsuits

Professional liability insurance, also known as errors & omissions (E&O) insurance, is a crucial part of protecting your architecture or engineering services firm.

Professional liability and E&O coverage can help pay your legal expenses and settlement costs if a client accuses you of making a mistake, missing a deadline, failing to deliver services, or of negligence.

A client might accuse you of negligent action, such as failing to exercise the required level of care in your work, or even blame your engineering services firm for construction defects.

If this happens, your professional liability coverage can offset the cost of hiring a malpractice attorney. Even if you already have an attorney-client relationship with an established law firm, your costs could still be expensive.

Plus, if you wind up in arbitration, defending yourself in such a tort case could require more than just legal advice. You may need to hire someone to examine your blueprints and offer expert testimony about your work.

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Mike Mosser, Content Specialist, Insureon

Mike spent several years as a reporter and editor covering politics, crime, and the world financial markets. He’s worked for several newspapers, a financial newswire, and a monthly magazine. As a copywriter, Mike has produced SEO-based content, marketing, public relations, and advertising work for a variety of companies.

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