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Engineer Did Not Assume Responsibility For All Aspects Of Design When He Stamped The Drawings That Did Not Include A Weld Design

In Novum Structures, LLC v. Larson Engineering, Inc., 2019 WL 1924878 (E.D. Wis. April 30, 2019), a Wisconsin District Court addressed whether an engineer’s sealing of design drawings makes the engineer the “Engineer of Record” and establishes a duty to verify the accuracy of the entire design. In 2014, Novum Structures, LLC (“Novum”) was hired to build a glass enclosed atrium. Novum prepared design drawings and supporting calculations for the atrium’s steel structure, but the drawings did not specify the type of welds that would be used to connect trusses to beams.

Novum sent the drawings to Larson Engineering, Inc. (“Larson”) to review and seal. The contract between Novum and Larson was oral and largely based on review services Larson had provided on other projects in the past. As you can guess, the parties disputed the nature of the work to be provided by Larson. Novum argued Larson was the “Engineer of Record,” and thus incurred any resulting liability for a defective design. Larson argued it was hired merely to conduct a peer review of drawings to ensure they conformed to the local building code.

In 2016, ice on the structure led to cracks in the welds at the connection of the truss to the beam. The subsequent investigation of the cracks revealed the welds were insufficient and the structure was unstable as a result. Novum sued Larson alleging negligence and breach of contract as a result of approving and sealing the design, despite not certifying the welds were sufficient.  

The Court denied Novum’s motion for summary judgment, holding there was a genuine dispute as to whether Larson was simply “peer reviewing” the documents or served as the “Engineer of Record” with a duty to verify the structural stability of the atrium as a whole, including the weld connectors. The Court stated, “what matters is the understanding between and the reasonable expectations of the parties.” The Court found that Novum’s expectations as to Larson’s work did not include reviewing the welds, as that information was not even provided to Larson. The Court also rejected Novum’s assertion that Larson had a non-delegable duty to ensure the welds were sufficient, noting that public policy cannot support the application of the non-delegable duty as between two sophisticated peers.  

This case should remind engineers and owners to clarify their relationships and obligations in writing, as verbal agreements will undoubtedly devolve into arguments about the scope of services being provided. It is common for an owner to argue an engineer that seals drawings becomes the “Engineer of Record” and has responsibility for the structure as a whole. This Novum decision, however, indicates this may not be the case and the duties owed are still only those the engineer agreed to provide.