Q: An engineer designed a portion of a foundation and then inserted that design into our drawings. At the time the foundation design was inserted on our drawing it was the only piece designed by someone other than us. However, this other engineer was the only one who signed and sealed the entire drawing. Can an engineer who only designs one discrete element on a drawing be liable for the whole design depicted on the sheet if he or she signs and stamps the drawing, despite only designing one discrete element present in the drawing?

A: Liability for design is both a regulatory matter and a matter of common law depending upon the state in which this engineer is licensed. Addressing the first issue, the regulation of engineering practice, most states hold that the engineer who signs and stamps the drawing remains responsible for the design depicted in that drawing. Therefore, based on the facts presented here, although this engineer only designed a small portion of the overall drawing, which included components designed by others, given that the engineer was the only engineer who signed and stamped this drawing it is more than likely that this engineer will be ultimately responsible for the overall design.

There are factors that mitigate the engineer’s responsibility here which may be taken into account by the appropriate governing board. Considerations would include the extent of the knowledge of the engineer who signed and stamped the drawing with respect to the other portions of the drawing and the intent in stamping the drawing. If the intent was innocent in terms of intending to only stamp the responsible portion, it is likely that the board would consider this a mitigating factor. However, if the signature and stamp was to otherwise approve and issue a drawing that would not otherwise be stamped or signed, then this engineer may be subject to discipline for careless practice or allowing that engineer’s stamp to be used for an improper purpose. As to civil liability for being sued for professional errors or omissions or responsibility for the design, the engineer who stamped the drawing could sue the other responsible parties for indemnity for their mistakes that are depicted in the drawing. The ultimate determination would turn on the facts surrounding when the design was complete and what the engineer reviewed when stamped. Obviously, if this engineer stamped the drawing with patent or obvious deficiencies this would weaken the engineer’s case.

Michael J. Baker, Esq., is a partner in the Cerritos, Calif.-based law firm of Atkinson, Andelson, Loya, Ruud & Romo. He is an expert in design and construction contracts, mediation, and litigation. Please send him your legal questions via e-mail at mbaker@gostructural.com.