Architects, structural engineers and other design professionals cannot expect contractors to share the blame if the contractors fail to warn them about deficiencies in their designs according to a recent court case, Cleightonhills v Bembridge Marine.

The case has important professional indemnity insurance (PII) implications for construction design professionals.

The ruling follows a tragic case where a young boat yard worker employee suffered serious brain damage following the failure of a newly-built platform.  The employee was helping to move a boat from a first floor platform into a workshop.  As he pushed the boat from the platform, a grating moved and he fell to the floor below. The loose grating fell onto him causing traumatic brain injuries.

The claimant brought proceedings against the boat yard and was awarded damages of £7 million.  The boat yard brought the designers, structural engineers, steel erector, steel fabricator and the draughtsman who had worked on the development of the platform into the proceedings.  The designers and structural engineers admitted liability for failures in the design, however the steel erector, steel fabricator and the draughtsman defended the action on the grounds that they had not breached their duty of care by failing to warn about possible design deficiencies.

The judge accepted their defence and said that there could be “no criticism of these three parties for not warning people further up the line that there was a potential problem, because they can not on the facts be criticised for failing to appreciate that there was any need to warn at all”.

This ruling shows that the buck stops with the design professionals,” said James Burgoyne, Director, Brunel Professional Risks.  “Designers should not expect the contractors to share the blame as they are not under a duty to question the structural design.  Sub contractors should be aware however that every case will be looked at on its merits and if they fail to spot obvious design errors such as a missing beam or column the outcome could well be different.”

The judge in Cleightonhills v Bembridge Marine also considered a number of other legal points, including the liability of parties which delegate contractual functions to sub-contractors.  The case has been reported in the RIBA Journal.