Vicarious Liability Can Lead To Ethical Violations

Professional engineers who affix their seal to plans for a structure must proceed with caution. The engineer may become liable for subordinates’ or other licensees’ mistakes. Therefore, professional engineers must take every precaution to make certain that subordinates’ plans as well as plans drafted by other licensees satisfy the standards in the profession. Failure to do so may have disastrous results, including revocation of license, suspension, probation, or censure. Missouri professional licensing attorney Danielle Sanger possesses vast experience in defending professional licensees whose ethical violations are based upon vicarious liability.

One of the greatest engineering tragedies occurred in Missouri. On July 17, 1981, the fourth and second floor walkways collapsed in the Hyatt Hotel. There were approximately 2000 people present. The collapse killed 114 and injured 186. At the time, this was the costliest structural collapse in United States’ history in terms of lives lost.  The Missouri Board of Architects, Professional Engineers, and Land Surveyors (“the Board”) instituted disciplinary action against the engineer in charge of the project. The engineer, Gillum, was found vicariously liable for the “acts and omissions” of another engineer when he affixed his seal to the plans, thus signifying his approval of the final construction plans.  Gillum was also found grossly negligent for not reviewing the subordinate engineer’s plans personally.

Gillum appealed the ruling. He argued that he cannot be found vicariously liable for another engineer’s actions. The appeals court disagreed. The court held that vicarious liability is based upon the relationship of the parties and, as a matter of public policy, one party is responsible for the “acts or omissions” of the other party. This holds true even if there is no wrongdoing on behalf of the party found to be vicariously liable. The court found that Gillum could not delegate his duty to ensure a structurally sound building once he affixed his seal to the plans. Thus, Gillum assumed responsibility of the entire project by signing off on the plans without a specific disclaimer.  The court stated that the thrust of disciplinary action is not necessarily punishment but rather protection of the public.  Accordingly, the disciplinary action levied against Gillum was appropriate for the subordinate engineer’s negligence.

Vicarious liability does not attach in every circumstance despite the engineer affixing his seal. The Missouri Supreme Court vacated the Board’s finding of suspension against an engineer, Bird, who approved final plans with his seal. The Missouri Supreme Court held that, upon review of the record, Bird discharged his duty as he was obligated to by statute. Bird was hired by a firm to complete a project and submit final plans after the firm had a financial dispute with the architect they initially hired for the project. The architect refused to place his seal on the plans. Bird reviewed all of the plans, performed the appropriate computations, and made the necessary changes to the plans. Bird affixed his seal approving the entire project.

The Board found that Bird failed to supervise the original architect and therefore was subject to discipline. The Missouri Supreme Court disagreed. The Court held that the statute merely delineated personal responsibility to Bird for the project and does not obligate one licensee to supervise another licensee. In reaching that conclusion, the Missouri Supreme Court stated that an engineer is only responsible for the work of an unlicensed person who is directly supervised by the engineer and not another licensee. Therefore, the Court found that Bird did not violate the licensing statute and was not subject to discipline.

Experience Generates Results

Kansas Professional licensing Attorney Danielle Sanger, with offices in Missouri and Kansas, understands the stress of facing a complaint levied by a licensing board. Attorney Sanger is a seasoned professional licensing attorney who will fight to protect your professional license that is the essence of your livelihood. Call Attorney Danielle Sanger today at 785-979-4353 to learn the difference experience will make for you.