How Construction Design Alterations Can Lead to an Increase in Professional Liability


Architects and engineers could end up with more than they bargained for when a job changes course. Unfortunately, clients do not always follow the initial designs as proposed. It is not uncommon for a client to change aspects of a job and request alterations from architects and engineers prior to and during the course of construction. However, design professionals need to be aware of the fact that “scope creep” or construction design alterations could cause them their own professional liability issues.

Customers Could Ask for Large or Small Changes to a Design

Scope creep can happen for many reasons. The client could dramatically expand the project. Alternatively, circumstances may change that require architects and engineers to do more. In some cases, clients may simply ask for favors or try to add additional scopes of work or small projects to the original contract. Oftentimes, when a client makes alterations to the design, they are already over budget and are seeking an architect’s or engineer’s services at a low cost or on a discounted basis.

Of course, a client could simply change their mind from what they initially wanted. Even if the client does not ask for a large-scale change to the project, they may have minor requests that they want to add on to the existing job. These could either be scope changes or things for which the client is paying extra. Since the job is already underway, the client may have a limited budget to order additional services. They may ask for the architect or engineer to provide a “quick service.” Professionals need to be careful of these requests.

Scope Creep Could Lead to Litigation

Scope creep may present a number of issues for design professionals. In general, when an design professionals end up doing a job that they did not anticipate at the beginning of the project, there is an increased risk for litigation. They may end up devoting more time and resources to the job than they originally expected. However, architects and engineers are often conflicted in these situations because they do not want to upset their client who may legitimately be going in a different direction. As much as an architect or engineer wants to manage scope creep, it may be virtually impossible in certain circumstances.

The Professional Could Jeopardize Their License with a Mistake

Architects and engineers have professional obligations they must follow. Clients rely on these professionals for their judgment. These design professionals must be licensed by a state board. They must pass an exam and maintain their license. There are certain things that can cause an architect or engineer to face professional discipline. Gross negligence or serious mistakes can lead to disciplinary actions, which can include suspension or license revocation.

Mistakes Can Also Mean a Negligence Lawsuit

In addition, design professionals can also be sued for negligence in the performance of their duties. They could be on the hook for large-scale damages that exceed the amount of their professional liability coverage. Being sued for negligence can be financially ruinous and can harm one’s professional reputation. Once an architect or engineer agrees to provide services, their relationship with a client is one that could end with the client suing them in court.

Design Changes Could Mean a Heightened Risk for a Mistake

When a design professional is forced outside their area of expertise, or they are required to make changes in a short amount of time, they increase their risk of making a mistake. The professional may be rushing, or they simply hope that they can do a “good enough” job on the change.

However, without sufficient disclaimers (or even with them), there may be little that the professional can do to shield themselves from possible liability. Once the architect or engineer signs their name to a report or product, they end up assuming responsibility for it. No matter how much investigation the professional performed, or how many resources they had available, they could still be liable just the same.

Balance Customer Relationships with Protecting the Business

Professionals need to temper their business instincts somewhat to protect themselves legally. As much as an architect or engineer wants to satisfy their client, they must also understand that there is a possibility that the same client can turn around and sue them when things go wrong. Oftentimes, a client is looking for someone to blame and hold responsible when their own costs escalate past their budget or their project is not going the way they thought it would. Client relations aside, an architect or engineer can put themselves in a serious bind when they perform services off the cuff.

One particular risk is when an engineer is asked to give a condition assessment. The assessment may require more investigation than an engineer is able to perform in a short period of time. If the engineer gives a cursory report with limited investigation methods and they do not include enough qualifiers and disclaimers, they could end up facing a significant amount of liability. They may have to pay remedial costs and other damages that their client incurs after they relied on the engineer’s opinion.

Perform Due Diligence Before Accepting any Changes

An architect or engineer should make sure that a client’s additional request or change is within the scope of their expertise. Not only that, but they should also verify that they have the time and personnel to perform the additional tasks. If the professional does decide that they can take on the added work, they should rigorously document the procedure they have used. In addition, they should add disclaimers that the report is intended for the client only and caution that the opinion or report relies on the engineer’s knowledge and belief.

Doing a haphazard job, just to complete the task, is definitely not worth the extra revenue. It may also not be worth jeopardizing the long-term relationship with the client, even if they are disappointed in the short-term because the work was declined. Architects and engineers need to also think about their own reputation and livelihood in this context, which can suffer if something goes wrong.

A professional should not be afraid to say “No” when they are not certain that they could provide their services in a way that reflects the due care they generally exercise in the performance of their professional duties. This is not to say that an architect or engineer should automatically reject any expansion to the scope of a project. Rather, they should evaluate each and every client request and consider their capability and their potential legal risks before agreeing to grant the request. Otherwise, they could find themselves on the receiving end of a professional liability complaint from the state and/or a lawsuit from a client seeking damages. Find out how the professional liability lawyers at MehaffyWeber can help you. Contact us for more information.