Claims Involving the Built Environment: How Architects and Engineers Can Advise Attorneys

TASA ID: 971

The built environment is full of hazards, costs and losses from which claims can arise. When an injury or loss occurs in an existing portion of the built environment or during construction, an architect or engineer can provide valuable insight in helping an attorney to sort out the issues associated with the physical conditions in the built environment.

The built environment includes any structure or area that has been formed by design and construction and is not solely the result of nature. The portions of the built environment may include, but are distinct from manufactured environments. As a result, most humans spend virtually all of their time within the built environment or within the influence of the built environment. This advice can help the attorney develop a legal strategy for filing a claim or for defending against a claim.

Claims from injuries:

Frequently, claims arise from an injury that has taken place in the built environment and in which the built environment has played a role. The following types of injury commonly give rise to a claim for which an architect or an engineer can advise either plaintiff's counsel or defendant's counsel:

  • Fall down stairs
  • Trip on a walking surface
  • Slip on a walking surface
  • Injury from broken glass
  • Illness from the interior environment
  • Injury from un-dampened door caught by wind
  • Injury form protrusions in a walkway

In examining the role that the built environment plays in injuries such as these, an architect examines three general areas: 

  • Design
  • Construction
  • Maintenance

An architectural expert can help determine which elements of the built environment are relevant to the injury and provide an initial evaluation of the portion of the built environment associated with the injury. Furthermore, an architectural expert can advise if an engineer should be consulted regarding specific portions of the built environment that are being evaluated. An engineering consultant is often needed when one or more engineering disciplines are involved in the incident that has given rise to the claim.

To get an idea of the type of multi-disciplined situations an architect can evaluate, consider a hypothetical injury in which a pedestrian falls down exterior concrete stairs at seven o'clock in the evening in mid-January. The architect's initial investigation of the site yields the following information:

  1. The walking surface of the steps (the treads) slopes downward toward the nosings because the concrete stair structure has either settled at the bottom or heaved from frost at the top, or both, causing the stair structure to rotate.
  2. The steps are not provided with a handrail.
  3. Adjacent grade slopes toward the steps, causing ice melt and surface water run-off to flow down the steps, where it may freeze and cause a slipping hazard.
  4. The nearest light fixture is a 100-watt incandescent bulb with a glass globe, mounted eight feet above and twenty-three feet behind the top step.
  5. Roof drain leaders discharge water onto grade, four feet behind the top step, at a higher elevation than the top step.
  6. The dimensions of the risers and treads of the steps do not fall within the limits provided by current code.  

All of these conditions gathered from a field investigation may have contributed to the slip down the stairs and the pedestrian's ability to recover from the slip. The attorney may offer to obtain an opinion of weather conditions from an independent expert based on available weather data. The architect may request maintenance records, as well.

Following this investigation, the architect can determine if separate engineering analyses are required to evaluate the design of roof-drain piping, the design of foundations for the concrete step structure, the design of grades affecting surface water run-off adjacent to the steps, and the design of lighting systems. Possible engineering disciplines could include:

  • Mechanical engineering
  • Structural engineering
  • Civil engineering
  • Electrical engineering

The architect would rely on the attorney to decide how these engineering analyses will be handled. Two options can be considered:

  1. A separate engineering expert can be retained for each discipline.
  2. The architect can consult with engineers of the appropriate disciplines, as an architect would normally do in the course of executing his or her responsibilities. The architect can then rely on these engineering consultations, combined with his or her experience, to formulate an opinion.

This second option is beneficial if qualified engineers are available and have a working relationship with the architect, but are reluctant to testify or submit a report with findings  that are critical of a colleague.

Once the design of pertinent portions of the built environment has been evaluated, the architectural expert can evaluate if the failure of these systems is the result of faulty

  • Design: Architectural or engineering design which fell short of the requirements of code or reasonable professional standards
  • Construction: Materials or methods of construction which did not conform to the design or to reasonable industry standards
  • Maintenance: Maintenance practices which did not meet applicable codes or reasonable standards

For the last category, an expert in facilities maintenance may be required, depending on the sphere of the architect's practice and the nature of the alleged maintenance deficiencies.

 Other sources of claims

Claims that arise from injuries in the built environment are quite common. Other conditions that can give rise to claims associated with the built environment include: 

  • Losses from failure of one or more built elements
  • Illness from failure of one or more built elements
  • Losses from construction delays and cost overruns
  • Injury during construction
  • Damage to adjacent structures from demolition or construction operations
  • Losses from design deficiencies, errors and omissions
  • Losses from a property seller's failure to disclose defects
  • Losses from fire, water or natural disaster
  • Losses from misuse of built elements

An architectural expert can provide guidance in all of these areas in the same way described for claims initiated by an injury. As with all claims involving the built environment, an architectural expert can help either plaintiff or defense attorney to identify the scope of expert reporting and testimony required to make or answer a claim.

Getting an expert started

Once an attorney has found an architectural expert who is suitable for a particular case involving the built environment, several steps should be taken to ensure that the expert has the information needed to work in an efficient and focused manner, to avoid excessive costs and irrelevant findings.

A synopsis of the facts of the case should be given to the architectural expert. This synopsis can be given orally, through e-mail, by sending a copy of the complaint, or through a statement made by the claimant. This synopsis is intended to allow the architectural expert to determine what aspects of the built environment must be investigated. Following this synopsis, more detailed materials can be given to the architectural expert to ensure that he or she has an accurate understanding of the case as it relates to the built environment. These materials should be sent to the expert, not to TASA.

Once the expert has an understanding of the case, it is advisable for the expert to perform a physical examination of relevant portions of the built environment. This physical examination is necessary to determine the usage of the building or grounds, to take detailed measurements of physical features, to record material characteristics, to take photographs, to record dimensions and to gather other relevant physical data.

Following a physical examination, the expert should express preliminary findings to the attorney so the attorney can determine if the information obtained is relevant to the case.  The expert relies upon the attorney to establish the form of communication for these preliminary findings, as well as subsequent communications, to ensure that all rules of discovery are observed.

The architectural expert will rely on the attorney to determine if an opinion should be expressed in the form of a report for the attorney's use or to present to other parties in the action. An examination and report can serve as a basis for testimony, if needed. 

An architectural expert, working alone or in conjunction with engineers, can assist an attorney with investigations, reports and testimony for claims that arise from a wide variety of occurrences within the built environment.

This article discusses issues of general interest and does not give any specific legal or business advice pertaining to any specific circumstances.  Before acting upon any of its information, you should obtain appropriate advice from a lawyer or other qualified professional.

This article may not be duplicated, altered, distributed, saved, incorporated into another document or website, or otherwise modified without the permission of TASA.

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