By Steve Whitehorn

This may sound shocking, but as an architect, you can be held legally liable for injuries and damages at a construction project, even if you have no direct involvement. Sometimes, if you have no involvement at all.

I know it seems unfair.  As an architect, you have virtually no control over day-to-day construction. Yet the fact is, just being part of the construction team can make you a legal party, and if something goes wrong, you can be on the hook for millions of dollars.

That’s exactly what happened to one architect in the well-known Philadelphia Salvation Army Thrift Store tragedy. Plato Marinakos’ civil trial is happening right now, and many architects are keeping a close eye, wondering how they can avoid the same fate. (To read more about the verdict, click here and here.)

The Salvation Army Thrift Store Collapse

On June 5, 2013, a building undergoing demolition collapsed onto the neighboring Thrift Store in Center City, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, trapping a number of people under the rubble. The store was open and full of shoppers and staff. Seven people died and twelve others were injured.

While the details are complex, it is clear that the excavation was done in extremely negligent fashion. Crucial support beams were removed early on, and walls and floors left suspended with virtually no support underneath. This could have been avoided, if the contractor and his team had followed textbook procedure.

In a recent trial, architect Plato Marinakos was one of 5 defendants found liable for civil damages to victims of this tragedy and their families. (The case was recently settled for $227 million. Although it seems Marinakos may have dodged a bullet, with the Salvation Army paying the bulk of the settlement–he could easily have lost everything.)

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Could the architect have avoided accountability?

Probably.

No architect should ever be responsible for events that are beyond their control. Anyone who has been to a construction site, knows that the contractor runs the show. Architects have zero input on the day-to-day decisions or process. What’s more, in construction, the stakes are high, and sadly, tragic injuries and deaths are not uncommon.

That’s why it’s really important for architects to have foresight and careful planning, so they can take the necessary steps BEFORE a project begins.

Here are 3 important lessons we can learn from the Salvation Army tragedy, to help architects minimize risk and avoid liability:

1. Use specific language in your contract. It is essential to delineate clearly and in writing, your exact function and responsibilities, at the outset of each project. There is no reason for you to be held responsible for construction or demolition activity, which is well beyond your scope of work. But if the contractual wording is vague, it can lead to confusion and needless risk. Architects can be an easy target, and convenient scapegoat. When contractors and lawyers play the “blame game”, you may be caught in their crosshairs. The best way to protect yourself is to be sure your contract clearly states that you bear no responsibility for any action or inaction of the contractor, construction crew, or anyone associated with the project.

2. Vet your clients carefully. They say the best defense is a good offense. Well, the best way to prevent liability is to avoid damage in the first place. Of course there are no guarantees, but if you do your homework and thoroughly check out the developer’s past projects, and speak to their former associates, you can get a good feel for the type of project to expect. According to news reports about the Salvation Army collapse, inexperienced developers were looking to get the job done fast, at the lowest bid (2 to 3 times lower than others). Anyone who uses this approach is asking for trouble, and it behooves architects to avoid these types of clients, or suffer the consequences if tragedy strikes.

3. Assess risk and be sure you have enough coverage. Not all insurance is created equal. Even if you have great coverage, if your policy is not sufficient to cover the damages you owe, you will be personally responsible to pay out of pocket. With some projects, the likelihood of injury and death can be minimal, but with others, it makes sense to get extra coverage. In the Salvation Army tragedy, there were a lot of red flags, and at the very least, anyone involved should have had a high-risk policy.

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At Whitehorn Financial, we go beyond insurance. Steve and his team of specialists give architects and engineers practical advice and hands-on guidance. We give you lots of time and attention, showing you simple steps to minimize risk, avoid liability, and maximize your profits.

If you have a question, or want to learn more about our services, please call today 973 564 9330 or email Steve@whitehornfinancial.com.

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