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A Younger Member's Perspective: The Legal Side of Engineering

By Gyan Sinha, A.M.ASCE, Orange County YMF Programs Co-Chair

YMF OC Legal Side of EngineeringLaw, it is an aspect of every profession that cannot be avoided. Architecture, Engineering, and Construction (AEC) industries are no stranger to litigation. A design professional is typically more comfortable in an office or construction site than a courtroom. However, with a better understanding of law and how it applies in our profession we can prevent the issues that can arise in a project. ASCE Orange County (OC) Younger Member Forum (YMF) hosted a professional seminar to help engineers understand these issues with the help of professional attorneys that specialize in Civil Engineering cases.

On the evening of June 25th, 2013 ASCE OC YMF joined Michael L. Wroniak, Esq. and Christian E. Bredeson, Esq. at their office Collins Collins Muir + Stewart, LLP for “The Legal Side of Engineering.”  Michael and Christian shared their decades of experience in trial practice, general litigation, and private representation for the AEC industry with our audience of 32 young professionals. Their case history included matters related to personal injury, breach of contract, professional liability and construction law.

Our panel focused on key concepts such as “standard of care,” contract reviews, the value of a well written scope, progression through design phases, and the legal ramifications at those stages. Michael and Christian emphasized that most liability issues arise during the construction phase of a project. When on-site, an engineer can play the role of an observer, supervisor, or inspector and, as a result, it is important for an engineer to know which role to play since each denotes a different set of responsibilities.

Other tips to avoid or be better prepared for litigation included proper documentation and note-taking during meetings, design, and field visits. Last but not least, what would an event on the legal side of engineering be without a discussion on submittals, RFIs, and change orders? The take-away of this discussion was that none of these should ever be taken lightly and that timeliness is always an important factor.

The overall idea that Michael and Christian hit home, was to understand the scope and contract for a given project. Most information regarding the design process and construction services are indicated in the contract and it is an engineer's responsibility to review and stick to the contract. They shared that a well-worded contract can reduce the chances of being sued to prevent a lengthy litigation process and avoid out-of-scope work for you and your firm. The panel pressed the importance of documenting the project, especially field directives that impact the design or scope of services. As an engineer, it is our responsibility to follow the standard of care in order to reach the project’s common goal.

Throughout the seminar, the panel provided quick case studies and attendees shared personal experiences; these examples were used to address challenges on a project and provide insight. All attendees were excited to listen to Michael and Christian as they provided great feedback in a very light and lively manner. ASCE OC YMF is appreciative to Collins Collins Muir + Stewart, LLP for holding the event at their office. We would like to thank Michael L. Wroniak & Christian E. Bredeson for an outstanding seminar. ASCE OC YMF plans to hold a follow up presentation of "The Legal Side of Engineering" Seminar, where we will discuss some of these topics in greater depth.