Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Engineering Law - Should an Engineer's responsibilities be lengthened beyond its contractual duties?

By Dirk Markhen

The question of what the scope of an engineer's obligations are, typically come up whenever an engineered component breaks. One prominent part to this question is whether an engineer's duties stretch over and above a contractual responsibility with its employer.

In Strijdom Park Extension 6 (Pty) Ltd v Abcon (Pty) Ltd this concern was raised and resolved via the Supreme Court of Appeal.


In this particular case the engineer was doing work for Strijdom Park Extension 6 (Pty) Ltd ("the employer") to build a steel reinforced concrete slab separating the bottom floor from the attic of a factory that has been built by Abcon (Pty) Ltd ("the contractor"). The concrete slab failed 2 years after occupation of the warehouse was taken.

The business instituted a claim for harm against the service provider and the engineer, alleging that they had breached their individual contracts with the employer. The claim against the engineer was settled, but the claim against the contractor was heard on appeal.

The parties were in agreement that the failure must've occurred throughout the casting of the slab when the bare concrete was poured over and in to the network of strengthening steel.

The dilemma which had to be decided on appeal was, to start with, whether the breakdown of the slab was at a minimum partially as a result of a flawed engineering design and, subsequently, whether the engineer had a obligation to the contractor.

The Court accounted for the subsequent undeniable evidence: * the disaster was a result of the failure of the higher of two woven mats of steel bars which had been surrounded in the concrete to reinforce it; * the failure had been a consequence thereof many of stools (which kept the two mats apart) were found to have been bent out of shape; * the contact in between the upper mat and the stools was limited to one bar of the mat sitting on the middle of the horizontal piece of each of such stools; * the stools were not mounted; and * the stool failure took place during the creation of the slab.

The Contractor's Disagreement

The Contractor, firstly, took the position that it was not to blame for the damages since it had created the layer of concrete as outlined by the engineer's specification, which was supposedly flawed.

Secondly, the contractor relied on the fact the engineer had approved the way in which the reinforcement was fitted.

Lastly, the contractor remarked that the engineer's design didn't reveal that there would have to be a couple of bars of the top mat per stool, nor that the stools needed to be fixed.

The contractor maintained that it did not notice the collapse of the upper mat, nor did it appreciate that the stools had not been tied up. It is apparent from the contractor's explanation that he left every appropriate choice associated with the assembly of the strengthening to the engineer and the steel contractor.

The Employer's Debate

The employer asserted that: * It was the obligation of the contractor to build the support mats and also to maintain same in the proper position.

* Correct construction procedure demanded that, whenever you can, two bars of the top mat ought to be positioned on each stool and that the feet of the stools be joined. There isn't any reason for an engineer to indicate these techniques on his drawings as these needs are part of good construction procedure and exclusively the contractor's duty.

* The contractor ought to have recognized the collapse throughout the pouring process and should have ceased the task in order to consult the engineer.

* If the contractor had viewed its obligations as set out previously, the disaster will not have occurred.

The Court's Approach

The Court concurred with the employer's position.

There was clearly no facts corroborating the claim that the engineer's design was flawed. Even though the engineer had approved the steel structure on-site, he did not have a responsibility to monitor the work of the contractor. It was the contractor's decision the way it performed the construction work and it cannot shift the blame on the engineer in the situation where it did not conduct its work in a suitable and workmanlike manner. It was also the contractor's obligation to ensure that the building of a design is free of errors.

Inside the Court's viewpoint, it had been sensible of the engineer to expect that the contractor would make certain correct construction of the support mat by recognizing any displacement and taking suitable action when it occurred.

The Court additionally responded that the engineer had merely a contractual obligation to the customer and never towards the contractor. The engineer did not even have a responsibility to get involved should the contractor seem to be going wrong (unless it was apparent to the engineer that the contractor did not know his business and would definitely get it wrong). Such a responsibility to intercede would only occur if the contractor seem set on an incredible act of carelessness.

The Court consequently decided that the slab had failed because the contractor did not execute the development in a proper and workmanlike way.


* An engineer's responsibilities are not prolonged beyond what is arranged as part of his agreement with his employer.

* An engineer will therefore not have the obligation to monitor the job of a contractor, unless he is contractually expected to do so and he can't be held liable for a third party's contractual violation.

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