Limitation of Design Liability

In a recent arbitration, almost 12 years after completion of a new-build, low-rise block containing flats, shops and communal facilities, a developer claimed against his builder for water damage. The developer particularised the claim in terms of design defects with a few sweep-up allegations of poor workmanship. The remedial scheme commissioned by the developer involved a redesign of that part of the building alleged to be at fault. The developer sought compensation from the builder for the full cost of the remedial works.

The builder confidently rejected liability for the cost of correcting design flaws as the design was produced by the developer’s chosen architect whose design the builder had been obliged to accept.

While the builder correctly understood how the design work had been undertaken, insufficient attention had been paid to the peculiar split between design liability and design duty under the building contract. The builder had entered a modified JCT design and build contract. This made the builder liable for negligent design while requiring the builder: to engage the developer’s architect, to implement the architect’s design and not to alter the architect’s design. Thus the builder had liability for a design over which he had no control.

Statute of Limitations 

The design, as evidenced by the drawings, was completed more that 12 years before the action was brought. Practical completion was less than 12 years before the action was commenced. The developer held that, as a builder’s duty continued until practical completion, the action was not statute barred. The builder disagreed, holding that if the action was statute barred against the architect, insofar as the claim was for deficiencies in the architect’s design, it must also be statute barred against the builder. The developer also argued that there was an implied continuing duty to review the design during inspections. However the building contract did not include a requirement for, and the architect was not engaged to carry out, routine periodic architectural inspections during the works.




Flawed Design

From the outset, reports by the project insurer’s surveyor, the occupant’s surveyor and the developer’s surveyor informed the legal proceedings and formed the basis for the remedial work. It was while the case was approaching a hearing and after the remedial work was complete that ArchiFACT was invited to prepare expert evidence and still later that the developer obtained an expert report.

ArchiFACT reported that the design was flawed (but not as the developer asserted) and that the developer’s remedial scheme was similarly flawed. The developer’s expert advised revising the developer’s case and the builder, on receipt of the developer’s expert’s report, stated that it raised issues other than those pleaded and applied to have much of it struck out unless the claim were revised. Such a late fundamental revision to the Statement of Case may have exposed the developer to a claim for abortive costs and the developer eschewed this advice and resisted the application. The arbitrator was minded to allow the claimant’s expert evidence on the basis he could properly ignore any part of it which did not go to the pleaded issues.

Settlement

Both parties, now close to a hearing, were in possession of expert evidence which put into question the validity of the claim as pleaded but which showed there was, subject to the Statute of Limitations, a viable claim. The developer’s costs already exceeded the sum claimed and the anticipated costs to go to a full hearing would make the parties’ costs greatly exceed the sum in dispute. The result was a compromise settlement following the experts’ meeting. Regrettably, due to the legal costs incurred, the settlement left both parties out of pocket by more than the sum claimed. A high price to pay for the experienced gained. An earlier reading of the contract documents and appointment of experts could have brought the dispute to a cheaper, quicker and more effective resolution.