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CROSS Safety Report

Litigation on divided responsibilities

Report ID: 229 Published: 1 January 2013 Region: CROSS-UK

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Overview

Divided design responsibilities, says a reporter, are a common source of litigation.

Key Learning Outcomes

For civil and structural design engineers:

  • Be aware of your legal liabilities and the importance of thoroughly defining the scope of the contractor’s design responsibilities

  • Consider how the design intent can be effectively communicated to contractors, particularly on high risk or complex projects

  • Although a fabricator might carry out the detail design of the connections, there is a clear responsibility on the main designer to assure that a connection design is feasible

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Divided design responsibilities, says a reporter, are a common source of litigation. In two recent cases they reported on a steel frame relying on rigid connections for stability, and on a frame which needed rigid connections but the engineer’s intent was not clear. Both projects required the frame suppliers to design the connections, a common subdivision of responsibilities. In the first case it was impossible to design rigid connections without heavy plating and stiffening in the columns and beams in a manner not anticipated at tender.

The client refused to pay the extra cost which led to the claim. The frame designer had adopted a ‘minimum weight’ approach and was found not to have met his obligations. In the second case a structural engineer made concept sizing errors in the connections of a frame. Rigid joints were required but the details provided led the frame supplier to assume the frame could have simple joints and be braced. Elaborate plated connections were needed when the frame supplier found that bracing would not be permitted. The client paid extra costs and delay and claimed these from the engineer who was found not to have met his obligations.

In both cases the connections were fundamental to structural stability and responsibility to adequately define them remained with the engineer, but while the engineers met their design responsibility for overall stability, they failed to adequately define the design interface and failed to adequately define connection design responsibilities expected of the contractor.

In both cases the contractor was obliged to take on a greater design responsibility to ensure a safe structure was built. If engineers became more aware of their potentially wide legal liabilities it would encourage them to more thoroughly define the scope of the contractor’s responsibilities. Where a contractor is to be responsible for certain aspects of the design this should be made clear in a legal agreement.

Expert Panel Comments

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The UK’s National Structural Steelwork Specification (NSSS) endeavors to define responsibilities and allocate them as between designer and steel contractor, and the information provided has to include that which defines overall frame stability. The problem about connections is one that repeats many times.

Although a fabricator might carry out the detail design of the connections, there is a clear responsibility on the main designer to assure that a connection design is feasible. The whole stability and load transfer system of a steel frame (including a huge amount of its cost) is linked to connection design and it is a poor and potentially unsafe design that places an impossible burden on the detailer.

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