Court Holds Engineer Owes No Duty to Construction Worker to Ensure Safety of the Means and Methods of Construction Under A201-2017 Provisions

Sara Betancourth, Esq., AIA Contract Documents, Manager and Counsel

October 26, 2023

A recent decision from the Court of Appeals of Louisiana confirms a widely accepted practice in the construction industry – the contractor is solely responsible for the means and methods of construction and for site safety. These express responsibilities are set forth in AIA Contract Documents A201®– 2017 General Conditions of the Contract for Construction.

The lawsuit arose out of a subcontractor’s allegations of injuries sustained while working on a construction project in New Orleans.[1] The City of New Orleans hired an architecture firm on the Allie Mae Williams Multiservice Center project to perform professional design and contract administration services. The architect retained an engineering firm to provide certain engineering services. The City also hired a general contractor for the project who, in turn, subcontracted out demolition services. During demolition, a vault structure collapsed and allegedly caused a subcontractor employee to sustain neck and back injuries.

The injured worker named the engineer in its complaint for negligence in the (i) preparation and approval of design plans and specifications, (ii) failure to design support for the demolition services, and (iii) failure to supervise the execution of the plans to ensure safety at the jobsite. Two primary issues before the court were whether the engineer owed a duty to provide a safe work environment and whether the engineer’s design plans were in accordance with industry standards.

In upholding the lower court’s award of summary judgment to the engineer, the Court of Appeals of Louisiana, Fourth Circuit, reviewed the relevant contracts entered into for the project.[2] When reviewing the engineer’s limited scope of work, the Court found that the scope did not include demolition drawings or specifications for the vault. The architect drafted plans for demolition of the vault, but provided only a note to the general contractor to completely remove the existing vault, as it was the contractor’s decision on how to take it down. Furthermore, consistent with standard A201-2017 language, the contract documents specified that the general contractor, not the engineer, was responsible for the means, methods, and safety precautions of the project. The contracts also detailed that (i) the engineer’s site visits and observations “shall not be construed as supervision of actual construction…”[3]; (ii) the general contractor was responsible for the “safety of all scaffolding, staging, and hoisting equipment and for temporary shoring, bracing and tying”[4]; and (iii) the engineer did not owe a duty to maintain, monitor or ensure the subcontractor’s safety.

The Court also analyzed standard A201-2017 language in the contracts that set forth the general contractor’s responsibility for the means and methods of construction, demolition, and for safety on the project.[5] This responsibility included the general contractor’s obligation for all construction means and methods; maintaining and supervising safety precautions; erecting and maintaining safeguards for safety and protection; and designating a responsible member at the site to prevent accidents.

During its analysis, the Court quoted Louisiana precedent, which also used AIA Contract Documents, as follows: “Here, the American Institute of Architects contract utilized in determining the roles of the parties and the duties between them used clear and explicit terms.”[6] The Court summed up analogous cases by stating that they stand for the notion that the general contractor, not the engineer, has an explicit contractual duty for the means and methods of construction and safety.

The subcontractor also argued that the architect visited to the site and took photographs on the date of the accident to show a breach of the duty of care.[7] However, the Court found that these actions could not be imputed to the engineer and no evidence showed that the engineer was aware of how the vault was being demolished.[8] Moreover, the prime contract gave the contractor sole decision-making responsibility as to the means and methods of construction, expressly including the obligation to “provide competent engineering services to execute the work in accordance with the Contract requirements.”[9]

In all, the Appellate Court affirmed summary judgment in favor of the engineer.[10] The Court reasoned that the engineer’s role during the project was limited to its specified scope of work as a consultant for the architect. That role did not include any demolition drawings or specifications for the vault. Additionally, the Court reasoned that under A201-2017 standard language, the engineer was not responsible for the means and methods of construction and for site safety. Rather, these responsibilities belonged to the general contractor.

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AIA Contract Documents has provided this article for general informational purposes only. The information provided is not legal opinion or legal advice and does not create an attorney-client relationship of any kind. This article is also not intended to provide guidance as to how project parties should interpret their specific contracts or resolve contract disputes, as those decisions will need to be made in consultation with legal counsel, insurance counsel, and other professionals, and based upon a multitude of factors.

[1] Bonilla v. Verges Rome Architects, 2022-0802 (La. App. 4 Cir. 5/11/23), 368 So. 3d 170, 171-172.

[2] Id. at 173-175.

[3] Id. at 174.

[4] Id.

[5] Id.

[6] Id. at 178.

[7] Id. at 175.

[8] Id. at 179.

[9] Id. at 175.

[10] Id. at 178-179.