Construction professionals’ duty to warn may be analysed as follows:
1. We must first decide what the scope of the contractual duties and services were.
The scope of the duty to warn and the circumstances in which it may arise should be determined against the context of what the professional person was contractually engaged to do.
2. The professional must exercise reasonable care and skill.
That duty must be looked at in the same context.
The duty to warn is a corollary of the duty to act with the skill and care of a reasonably competent person in that profession.
3. The existence and extent of that duty will depend on all the circumstances.
4. The duty to warn can arise when a careful professional ought to have known of a danger either to life and limb or to property having regard to all the facts and circumstances. It does not have to be an obvious and significant danger.
5. Any duty to warn may well not be engaged if all there is a possibility in future that the contractor may not do the works properly, or of some other danger.
Generally, the engineer or architect is required to design the permanent works and the contractor is responsible for the design of the temporary works necessary to facilitate the permanent works.
But it will always be necessary to consider what services the professional is engaged to provide. There may well be contracts for professional services in which the engineer is employed to consider and approve temporary works’ proposals and, if so, that must be done with reasonable care and skill.
On other contracts the engineer may be engaged to supervise or inspect the works and, also, that will have to be done with reasonable care and the scope of that duty may entail checking how safely the works are being carried out by the contractor.
In the High Court case of Goldswain & Anor v Beltec Ltd (t/a BCS Consulting) & Anor  the Claimants had a leasehold ground floor flat with a cellar which they decided to convert into living accommodation by underpinning the outer walls to create more height. They retained professional engineers, Beltec Ltd (“Beltec”).
Beltec was employed to provide the permanent works design for the excavation of the basement, the underpinning of the perimeter walls and the provision of support to the internal walls and structure as necessary.
That the obligation related and was limited in scope to design was supported by the Letter of Instruction:
“This letter instructs [Beltec] to carry out structural designs…”
This pointed strongly to the scope of the services not covering any supervision or inspection of the contractor. There was nothing referring to any involvement with the contractor.
Later AIMS Plumbing & Heating Ltd (“AIMS”). AIMS installed the underpinning. Following increasing amounts of cracking in the superstructure the building collapsed.
By the legal proceedings AIMS was believed to be insolvent.
The court said, in the contractual context what were the Claimants contractually entitled to expect from Beltec?
Beltec was required to provide the Claimants with the structural designs with reasonable care and skill.
The main issues were whether:
1. the drawing which showed the light well at the rear with the doorway into the light well, created a weakness or risk such that a competent contractor would not necessarily have appreciated it and,
2. therefore whether Beltec should have provided for some way of overcoming such weakness or risk.
No professional negligence in relation to the design and specification of the rear light well or otherwise had been established.
All Beltec had to do was to tell AIMS to follow the requirements set out on the drawings which had been done.
It had not been established on any balance of probabilities that Beltec should have realised that AIMS was completely out of its depth or not competent to do the job which it had been employed to do. They had believed that a company like AIMS would not necessarily need to have a temporary works designer if it had the experience in-house. There was no evidence that AIMS did not have that experience in-house.
The overwhelming probability was that AIMS had failed to carry out their work with reasonable care and skill or in compliance with the drawings which it was provided with. The breaches of contract on the part of AIMS had undoubtedly caused the collapse.
The primary mechanism of failure was a horizontal or sliding movement of the base of the flank wall. There was no propping of the flank wall and the specified sequence had not been followed, particularly in relation to the need to form the subjacent floor slab and kicker under and next to each of the pins.
Although Beltec had provided no specific guidance on how the base slab sections to the pins in the various corners were to be constructed, that was something which could reasonably be left to the contractor to work out, since the contractor had responsibility for how the works were done.
Any competent contractor could and would be expected to read the drawings and correctly interpret and implement the correct thicknesses.
Competent engineers, exercising reasonable care and skill, would have readily assumed that builders would read and understand the drawings in that way and the order in which the works were to be done.
It was unnecessary to decide whether or not AIMS would have followed more detailed advice or design specifications in relation to propping and the like.
Anyway, there was insufficient evidence to establish on the balance of probabilities that AIMS would have followed such advice or further specification because AIMS ignored such advice as was given.
So even if the court had found material breaches of duty on the part of Beltec, it is unlikely that it would have found an adequate causal link between such breaches and the collapse because the intervening and immediate cause of the damage and loss would have been the contractor’s negligence.
So the Claimants’ case against Beltec was dismissed and AIMS was found liable to the Claimants for damages of £287,754.55 – not that that would have been any consolation to them.
This blog has been posted out of general interest. It does not replace the need to get bespoke legal advice in individual cases.