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Liability for Catastrophic Construction Failures

March 27, 2020

Catastrophic construction failures such as the April 2019 collapse of a construction crane on a Seattle office building that killed four people generate headlines and stun the public. Such disasters are examples of construction projects that were defectively designed and/or built, leading to construction defects and catastrophic failures. Construction defects can be obvious or latent. Defects such as under-strength concrete or coatings failures usually are apparent during construction, when liability is clear and the cost of correction is minimal. A latent defect is undetected until the structure and its systems are in use. Construction defects also can result from a product failure. Adhesives fail, boilers explode, sprinklers sometimes do not sprinkle.

The construction contractor is responsible to perform the work to complete the project. The contractor’s obligations are defined by the construction contract, which provides the basis for liability. Construction site safety is the contractor’s responsibility. For example, the investigation of the Seattle crane by Washington State authorities collapse blamed the contractor, concluding that the crane toppled in a wind gust because the workers who were disassembling it prematurely removed pins securing sections of the mast, contrary to the manufacturer’s instructions. 

Construction defects can affect completed projects in ways ranging from poor aesthetics to catastrophic collapse. When a defect, failure or collapse occurs, the contractors, designers and owner all may be exposed to liability, depending upon how each one carried out its responsibilities during the design and construction processes.

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