Liability for Injury Caused By a Construction Defect

Learn about the liability of the builder - architect, engineer, or contractor - when a construction defect causes injury.

Whether we’re talking about a home or a commercial building, there are two basic types of construction defects: design defects (for which an architect or engineer is responsible), and building defects (for which a contractor or subcontractor is responsible). Construction defects can cause a variety of problems, including injuries to construction workers, building occupants, and pedestrian passersby.

This article discusses the responsibilities of professionals in the construction industry (including architects, engineers, contractors, and subcontractors) when it comes to injuries caused by construction defects, and the kinds of lawsuits that might arise when construction defect injuries occur.

Construction Professionals and Construction Defects

Every professional in the construction industry -- whether on the design or building side -- has a responsibility to exercise the amount of care and skill of other competent professionals in the same field. Here are a few examples of things that might go wrong in the context of a construction project:

  • A roof collapses because contractors used inferior construction materials.
  • A person falls down a staircase that was designed in such a way so as to give people little or no visual warning of its existence.
  • An explosion causes injuries as a result of an architect’s failure to indicate on plans the location of underground gas lines.

Contractors and subcontractors can agree to assign responsibility for defects to each other when they enter into contracts to do business. Most commonly, contractors require subcontractors to agree to accept responsibility for construction defects. As a result, subcontractors tend to be the parties responsible for personal injury resulting from flaws in the execution of building plans.

Lawsuits That Might Arise When Defects Cause Injuries

When a person is injured as a result of a design or building flaw, an architect, engineer, general contractor, or subcontractor may find themselves being sued for negligent construction. In order to win a person injury lawsuit for harm caused by a construction defect, a plaintiff must prove three elements:

  • that the defendant (the architect, engineer, general or sub-contractor) owed a duty to the plaintiff to meet a specific standard of care
  • the defendant failed to perform according to that standard, and
  • the injured person suffered harm caused by that failure.

Whether it’s a design professional or a contractor, a defendant in a construction defect case will only be liable for injuries that could reasonably have been foreseen. For example, let’s say a planner designed a walkway without a curb, and too close to the street. The planner might be partially liable to a jogger who was struck by a car when the vehicle drifted out of the lane and onto the walkway, since such an incident is probably a foreseeable result of the design defect.

In order to win a personal injury case, the plaintiff will have to prove what quality of work the defendant should have provided under the circumstances. This usually requires expert testimony by witnesses who are well-experienced in the kind of construction work at issue. So, following up with the example of the too-narrow walkway with no curb, an expert might show how that kind of design is a deviation from commonly-accepted practices within the construction/planning industry.

Proving Damages Caused by Construction Defects

As with any other personal injury case, a person who has been injured in a construction defect case (called the “claimant” in an insurance settlement or the “plaintiff” in a lawsuit) seeks compensation from those who are at fault. Every case will look a little different, but typical personal injury damages often include:

  • medical expenses for treatment of injuries (both past and future)
  • lost wages (for time missed at work due to the injury)
  • pain and suffering, and
  • loss of normal life (the decreased quality of a person’s life as a result of the injury).

It is critical that the damages were actually caused by the defendant’s negligence. So, to continue using the example of the narrow walkway that was designed without a curb, if the jogger was running in the street when the vehicle was approaching -- and there was nothing preventing him or her from using the walkway -- the engineer probably would not be responsible for any resulting injuries. It is true that the engineer came up with a negligent design, but that negligence can’t be linked to the injuries in this example, because the jogger left the walkway on his or her own, and chose to run along the street.

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